'You don't have American history without Black people': How one Utah school failed its students

A public charter school in Utah sparked controversy over the weekend after announcing that students’ parents could “exercise their civil rights” and opt their children out of the Black History Month curriculum taught in the school. Now, after widespread backlash, it’s walking back this decision.

“We regret that after receiving requests, an opt-out form was sent out concerning activities planned during this month of celebration,” Maria Montessori Academy Director Micah Hirokawa told Yahoo News via email on Monday. “We are grateful that families that initially had questions and concerns have willingly come to the table to resolve any differences and at this time no families are opting out of our planned activities and we have removed this option.”

Hirokawa had initially announced the option to opt out on the North Ogden school’s private Facebook page Friday, saying he “reluctantly” sent a letter to parents giving them the choice of whether or not to have their children participate in the school’s Black History Month curriculum. The director said the decision was sparked by “a few families” who asked to not participate in the month’s instruction, but did not provide further details as to how many families asked or why they requested this.

Maria Montessori Academy in North Ogden (The Standard-Examiner via AP)
Maria Montessori Academy in North Ogden, Utah. (The Standard-Examiner via AP)

Local leaders slammed the school’s decision to give parents the option at all.

“I strongly believe we cannot learn American history without learning Black history,” U.S. Rep. Blake Moore, a Republican whose district includes North Ogden, said in a statement over the weekend. “It is crucial to embrace our shared history.”

“This is just part of the problem,” Utah Jazz star guard Donovan Mitchell tweeted after seeing the story. “Racism is taught. And the fact that kids are being told by their own parents to not learn about black history and black excellence is sickening and sad!!”

Maria Montessori Academy, located about 45 miles outside Salt Lake City, serves elementary and middle school students. Of its 322 students, just three are Black, with white students making up about 70 percent of the school’s population, according to the Utah State Board of Education. The community of North Ogden is over 94 percent white, according to census data.

Despite the school’s decision in the end to teach Black history to all of its students, for many critics, the initial move to make the instruction optional is problematic.

“The history of Black people in America is American history, period,” Robert Sanders, chair of the national security department at the University of New Haven, told Yahoo News in a phone interview. “When you talk about America, Black people need to be placed in it. People of color were here before Europeans were here and have participated in every movement and moment since then.”

Capitol police officer Eugene Goodman (Photographer: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg)
Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool/via Getty Images)

“The Capitol was built by Black Americans,” Sanders added. “The streets around the Capitol were designed by a Black man, Benjamin Banneker. Officer Eugene Goodman, the officer who saved the Capitol a few weeks back, was a Black man. ... How much more American history do you need to have to fully understand that American history is Black history?”

Black people have been contributing to America since they were kidnapped from their native African villages and forcibly brought over on ships as slaves dating back to 1619. Millions of enslaved Africans were brought to America and sold to colonists to cultivate land and perform other labor, as chronicled in the New York Times’ “1619 project.”

Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, a Movement for Black Lives activist and co-executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center, said it’s inconceivable to think that Black history would not be a mandatory part of every curriculum, and yet for her, the school’s move is not “shocking” and reflects white supremacy.

“We know that the actual practice of white supremacy is to dismember us from the legacies of radical resistance,” Henderson said. “It’s to remove us from what is actually our adherence to know that people have been fighting for us and doing it successfully for generations.

“The white power movement or the attempt to operationalize anti-Black racism through curricula or through legislation is alive and well,” she added. “That does not mean their movements are winning. What it means is that our movements for Black liberation are building power, but also that white supremacist patriarchal violence is in play by people who are holding on to the last vestiges of those systems.”

Supporters of Confederate flag rally at South Carolina statehouse. (Getty Images)
Supporters of the Confederate flag rally at the South Carolina State House. (Getty Images)

Over two centuries of slavery that ended in December 1865 gave way to racist Jim Crow laws that lasted from 1865 to 1965, leaving a legacy of present-day racial discrimination.

Yet Black people have, despite these policies, continued to contribute to the country’s achievements. In addition to a Black man holding the highest office in the land as president, Black Americans have been behind a number of key inventions of the past two centuries, ranging from an improved telegraph system to the lawn mower.

Yet there have been a number of efforts over the years to marginalize those accomplishments and reimagine American history. In 1894, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, founded 30 years after the Civil War, formed a Southern white women’s “heritage” group with the goal of transforming the war’s military defeat for the South into a political and cultural triumph. The group published books that spoke fondly of the Ku Klux Klan, and the women traveled all over the country influencing the education of white American children by surrounding them with Confederate images in schools.

“They had a multi-pronged approach to doing that,” historian Karen Cox told Salon in a 2018 interview. “It involved going into schools and putting up battle flags and portraits of generals. It meant getting schools renamed for famous Confederates.”

As recently as August 2018, the group’s website had a line that read, “Slaves, for the most part, were faithful and devoted. Most slaves were usually ready and willing to serve their masters.”

A memorial to the United Confederate Veterans erected in 1926 and paid for by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. (Genna Martin via Getty Images)
A memorial to Confederate veterans erected in 1926 and paid for by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. (Genna Martin via Getty Images)

The organization also greatly influenced textbooks in the South from the post-Civil War era to the mid-20th century by crafting public school curricula to teach history based on the Lost Cause, which was a “false version of U.S. history developed in response to Reconstruction that minimizes slavery’s central role in the Civil War,” according to Facing South magazine.

Today, the reimagining of history continues to take place. During President Trump’s final days in office, he released the “1776 Commission,” a 40-page document that sought to “Restore Understanding of the Greatness of the American Founding.” The report was created by an 18-person commission made up of mostly white male conservative educators that included no historians. The document sought to defend the U.S. role in slavery by saying it was not a “uniquely American evil.”

“The unfortunate fact is that the institution of slavery has been more the rule than the exception throughout human history,” the report states.

On his first day in office, President Biden rescinded the 1776 Commission and archived the report as his second in command, Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black woman to hold the vice presidential office, stood next to him.

President Joe Biden signs an executive order with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Karen A. Johnson, an associate professor of education at the University of Utah, said Trump’s commission was an example of a “historical problem” of discounting Black contributions to America.

“The purpose of the 1619 Project is to bring the margins to the center, [which includes] the story of slavery in this nation by centering the contributions of Black Americans,” Johnson told Yahoo News. “The purpose of the 1776 Commission is to decenter the history of Black people and slavery and to re-center white supremacy at its core.

“The Maria Montessori Academy is just a reflection of the fact that there is a segment of white [people] in this country that want to hold on to the idea of white privilege, white nationalism and white supremacy,” she added. “I argue that the desires of the parents at Maria Montessori to opt out of Black history classes are a desire to hold on to white supremacy.”

Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, in reaction to the school news, admitted that his own education was “white-washed” and said he blames it for “why racism persists in America.”

“Facing up to our original sin and teaching our children the violent truth of racism in America is the only way we can move forward to becoming a stronger, more equitable and compassionate society,” Kerr tweeted Sunday. “I was never taught about atrocities like Black Wall St, Rosewood or Opelousas, etc. For white Americans, facing the past is shamefully difficult, but ignoring our past perpetuates bigotry.”

Crowds surrounding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Getty Images)
Marchers in Memphis, including Harry Belafonte, Coretta Scott King, Jesse Jackson, Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young, days after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968. (Santi Visalli/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

It remains unclear if Maria Montessori Academy had the legal standing to allow students to opt out of a core curriculum. Utah law allows public school students to be granted a waiver from instruction that would infringe on their religious beliefs, or “right of conscience,” but students cannot be exempt from their social sciences curriculum.

Henderson, of the Highlander Center, believes that this is the time for white people who believe in Black humanity to put their words into practice.

“This is an opportunity for white folks that believe that Black lives matter to rise in defense of Black lives and solidarity with like people to say, ‘Enough is enough,’” she said. “Say that ‘this is not OK. You don’t have American history without Black people.’”

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Ben Dorger/Standard-Examiner via AP, Central Press/Getty Images, Paul Schutzer/the Life Picture Collection via Getty Images, Santi Visalli/Archive Photos/Getty Images


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