Speakers fire up crowd at town hall meeting on Black history

Panelist (from left) included Andrea Oliver, Anika Williams and Marlon Williams.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine
Marie Rattigan (right), vice president of the local NAACP, presented questions to a panel that included (from left) Darius Young, Rita Brown and Darryl Jones.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine
A large crowd showed up for a town hall meeting to discuss Black history in education.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook Staff Writer

Every time one of the panelists made a point that struck a chord with the audience, the responses were resounding applauds.

Some simply let out an “uh-huh” loud enough to be heard anywhere in the Multipurpose Room at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church’s Family Life Center.

Marlon Williams, a teacher at Florida High, elicited the crowd’s response multiple times. It started when he said “Our history did not start with slavery so it’s very important for these students to engage with this information.”

Williams teaches African American history at the Florida High and is one of 60 teachers across the country piloting the controversial AP African American Studies course. 

He was one of six educators that organizers brought together for a Saturday afternoon town hall meeting billed as “The Freedom to Learn.” It was a collaboration between Florida Student Power, the Tallahassee National Pan-Hellenic Council, the National Action Network, the Tallahassee Branch of the NAACP and the Tallahassee Barristers.

“This town hall marks merely the beginning of multiple initiatives aimed at engaging the community in the political process and reimagining a world that works best for them,” Marie Rattigan, Vice President of the Tallahassee NAACP, said in a statement before the meeting.

Rattigan, who organized the event, elaborated following the town hall.

“This past legislative session attacked education and we know that education is an equipment for how we can propel ourselves and move forward in the future,” she said. “That was the goal; to educate, inform and empower and also to get people to come out.”

The meeting attracted more than 100 people who came to show their support for pushing back against an African American history standard recently approved by the State Board of Education that says enslaved people benefitted from slavery because they learned skills. 

Organizers said they want to change the narrative and make sure young people know Black history.

“We have to figure out what we want kids to experience. We come in a room like this and have the hard conversations just like everyone in this room did,” said Sheria Griffin, a former teacher who is advocating for change in the profession. “Black history is our history; the good, the bad, and the ugly. We have to find a common way for everyone to exist in it because we are still creating history every day. My thing is, more than anything, is that we continue to have these conversations.”

Bishop Harold Edward, a former math and science teacher at Rickards High School, said the town hall conversation was enlightening. However, he said he would have liked to see lawmakers in the room.

“It’s hard to trust your education in a system where you’re oppressed,” said Edwards, who added that he interjected Black history even in his teaching of science and math. “It’s very important so that you know your history and know the things that you’re a part of. I made that very important when I was in the class.”

Parents and teachers have been critical of a lengthy list of changes that a Republican-controlled legislature delivered to Gov. Ron DeSantis. Changes to the AP African American Studies course is still a major concern, as it’s now seen as a watered down version of Black history in the course for high school students.

“We did not get here because our ancestors were lazy. We did not get here because our ancestors were afraid. I think often times when we have to teach the information about African people it was like one style and they went along with it. No they didn’t,” Williams said, prompting a lengthy applaud. “They fought every day. 

“They fought on the ships. They fought before they were taken off the Coast of Africa. They fought when they were on the plantations. They fought when they were dealing with abuse; not only from the slave master but also from his wife. They fought every second of every day to do what they wanted to do. They were seeing something far beyond themselves.”

Since 1994, there has been a Florida statute that requires school to teach African American history. That law has been gutted by lawmakers with the introduction of legislation, which the governor has signed.

Another of those laws bans discussions on gender and critical race theory in classrooms, a move that lawmakers say would prevent students from being uncomfortable. Many of new legislations have the support of Moms for Liberty, a conservative political organization. 

Panelist Anika Williams, a policy director, said she finds the group’s position troubling.

“They show up at every school board meeting and sit in the front,” Williams said. “They want to intimidate school board members. They do not care about our children.”

Antoine Brooks brought his son, Aaron, who is a student at Canopy Oaks Elementary School, to help him get an understanding of the attack on education and Black history.

“I wanted to bring my so that he can hear the perspectives of leaders in our community and understand the issues that are plaguing our education system and a path forward,” Brooks said. “He hears it from me but it’s important that he hears it from other people that look like us so that he could get s better perspective on what needs to be done.”

One of the most controversial changes is the Parental Rights in Education Act, commonly referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. The bill bans instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

“We could never rely on the school board to tell our story,” said Darius Young, a history professor at FAMU. “These young people in K through 12 now, for the most part, only get taught Black history in February. It’s the same narrative; King’s dream (and) they don’t talk about nothing prior to the dream sequence. Now, young people are asking the question; what are they trying to keep from us. The beauty of the moment that we are in now is that they have so many outlets to ask these questions.”

Some parents have latched on to that law and raised concern about certain books, including the Bible. Most recently a parent’s complain about books in the Osceola County School district.

“Of course it was unnecessary because everything they wrote into this law, parents already had the right to do, but we know what they did it,” said Andrea Oliver, a history professor at Tallahassee Community College. “You have people out there challenging books and curriculums that they haven’t even read. They are making decision for kids because they don’t like kids that look like them to be exposed to this information.”

School choice was also another of the issues that came up during the discussion. During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers passed HB 1 that removed financial eligibility restrictions on vouchers. That allows parents in the state to enroll their children in a school of their choice. Along with the change, household income no longer determines who gets to make a school choice.

Rita Brown, owner of Brownville Preparatory Institute, said that the requirement doesn’t have a major impact on her operation. However, she noted that she favors school choice.

Responding to a question about how school choice affects minority children, she said, “a move like that could not have been specifically to uplift Black and brown children in the state.”

However, she said, “I think we have to move forward, making it very intentional, on what that means in our community. There are several different layers that will affect what the private schools look like in our community.”

Darryl Jones, District 1 representative on the Leon County School Board, also expressed support for school choice. 

Then, Jones brought the focus back to what got the conversation going in the first place – the new standard for teaching African American history.

“I think that we need to look at their play book and find ways to take their play book and use it to the advantage of our children,” Jones said.

Last Saturday’s town hall could be the start of what could be a lengthy process toward change, said Mutaqee Akbar, president of the local chapter of the NAACP.

“It’s easy to address the problem, but to come up with solutions is always the difficult part,” he said. “We believe by having monthly meetings, not just to talk, but to talk about solutions to educate our own children is important to moving our community forward.”

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