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New group pushes for more Black history in Kentucky classrooms

 Six adult humans in professional attire pose for a group picture in a conference room.
Jess Clark
/
LPM
From left to right: Chaka Cummings, executive director of the new association; Marilyn Jackson, president and CEO of the Muhammad Ali Center; Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman; Louisville mayor's deputy chief of staff Keisha Dorsey; JCPS chief equity officer John Marshall; and Bennie Ivory, board chair of the Thomas D. Clark Foundation.

On the first day of Black History Month, a group of scholars and Kentucky leaders announced a new initiative to bring more Black history into the state’s classrooms.

Leaders of the new Association for Teaching Black History in Kentucky say they plan to create resources and training to help educators teach students about Black history in their own state.

“Our mission is really to elevate, lift up, give voice, highlight the stories and the historical experiences of Black Kentuckians,” executive director Chaka Cummings said at a news conference Wednesday.

The group is a collaboration between Berea College, Kentucky State University, the Muhammad Ali Center and the Thomas D. Clark Foundation.

Cummings said many students already learn about national Black historical figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., but they don’t know the local history of the Civil Rights Movement.

“How often do we talk about the fact that he [King] marched in Frankfort?” Cummings said. “How often do we bring in folks who – they were here when he marched in Frankfort. They can actually tell the story of what that day was like.”

There are many stories of Black Kentuckians that students should know more about, Cummings said: Oliver Lewis, the jockey who won the first Kentucky Derby. Or Carter G. Woodson, a Berea College graduate whose work inspired the creation of Black History Month.

“He [Woodson] would talk about the fact that if we are going to look at a full view of American history, Black history has to be a part of that view,” Cummings said.

Bennie Ivory, chair of the Thomas D. Clark Foundation, said the nonprofit was spurred to take action after the police killing of Breonna Taylor in 2020.

“We quickly coalesced around the idea of Black history because we know it’s not taught the way it should be taught in Kentucky or anywhere else in this country,” Ivory said.

The foundation created the website HistoryOfRace.com, which already has resources and lessons teachers can use in the classroom. The new association will convene a committee of educators and continue to add to it.

The initiative has the support of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman.

“It is critical that all of our history be taught in Kentucky schools, the good and the bad,” Coleman told reporters at the Muhammad Ali Center. “History lights our path forward, informing us of who we are, where we come from, where we are as a people and where we want to go.”

The announcement comes as some conservative politicians across the country are seeking to restrict classroom discussions on race and gender. In Florida last month, the state Department of Education pulled an Advanced Placement African American Studies course from high school offerings, over objections that portions of the course constituted “indoctrination.”

Politicians in Kentucky have also sought to restrict classroom discussions on race. The GOP-led General Assembly passed a law last year that requires classroom instruction to be consistent with the idea “that defining racial disparities solely on the legacy of [slavery and Jim Crow] is destructive to the unification of our nation.”

That measure was a watered-down version of earlier, more restrictive legislation. One bill would have created penalties for teachers if they are seen as promoting the idea that the U.S. or the state of Kentucky is “fundamentally racist or sexist.”

John Marshall, chief equity officer at Jefferson County Public Schools, said he doesn’t expect the new Black history initiative to conflict with the state’s law.

“What this does is let students decide if the United States is fundamentally racist,” Marshall said. “What this does is let students know the whole story.”

Marshall said he is excited about the new project, and that it will give more JCPS teachers the training and resources they need to make lessons more culturally inclusive.

Keisha Dorsey, deputy chief of staff to Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg, spoke in support of the initiative, asking “why is this even controversial?”

“This is simply a process to say, we’ve evolved as a history, let’s share that truth, and let's create a plan for the future so we don’t repeat those mistakes again,” she said.

Support for this story was provided in part by theJewish Heritage Fund.

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Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.