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Did you learn about Juneteenth in school? Many American history lessons fall short on black history

Understanding Juneteenth's significance
Understanding Juneteenth's significance 08:29

On its 155th anniversary, Juneteenth is gaining more widespread attention than ever before, and is being recognized as an official holiday by more states and a growing number of companies. The holiday, celebrated annually on June 19, marks the day in 1865 when Union troops brought the news to African Americans in Texas that slavery had been abolished by the Emancipation Proclamation two years prior. 

Juneteenth is a major event in black history — and yet, many people are just learning about its significance now, in 2020.

"I had never heard of Juneteenth until after college, for sure," Lindsay Templeton told CBS News. Templeton, who went to Godwin High School in Henrico County, Virginia from 2000 to 2004, says there are many aspects of black history she didn't learn until she was an adult, such as the Tulsa race massacre.

This week, Templeton, who has worked in several schools, asked her followers on Instagram to tell her the most important part of black history they did not learn as a child. The answers she received were eye-opening. 

"The lack of black history in the curriculum is not an issue that's exclusive to the South," Templeton told CBS News. "There are people chiming in from different states and different coasts about how they never learned about a lot of these things, about how white-washed their history classes were."

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Juneteenth is a major event in Black history – and yet, many Americans never learned about it in school.

Templeton said the biggest pattern in people's answers was how "glorified" white historical figures were in history lessons. "People were telling stories about how they learned how nice Pilgrims were, and learned about the nicer slave owners, and celebrating Confederate 'heroes,'" she said. 

She said that when she has children, she doesn't want them to grow up learning what she did. "I want them to understand the realities of how bad things were and that essentially, white people were not the center of American history," said Templeton, who now lives in Washington D.C.

Templeton acknowledged that incorporating lessons on African American and black history into school curriculums should not solely fall on the shoulders of teachers. "This is a state-level thing that needs to change," she said. 

One legislator is making it a national issue. In an op-ed for Fortune magazine, Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, a Democrat from Ohio, explains her newly-introduced legislation that encourages the proper inclusion of African American history in schools.

"(M)any of our contributions to America's history are not known or understood by most Americans, because they are not properly taught in our schools," Fudge writes.

Fudge's bill would provide grants for teachers and students to teach and learn black history and would also require the national tests given to elementary, middle, and high school students to always include black history.

Only 12 states already recognize how important it is to teach black history, according to Fudge. "Our other 38 states should join them, and take action that acknowledges the role of black people in the discovery, development, and growth of our country," she writes. 

Remembering Black Wall Street 04:34

Earlier this year, CBS News published the results of a two-month-long investigation into how black history is taught around the U.S., taking a look at the social studies standards in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

That report found seven states do not directly mention slavery in their state standards and eight states do not mention the civil rights movement. Only two states specifically mention white supremacy, while 16 states list "states' rights" as a cause of the Civil War.

A 2016 survey conducted by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture estimated that less than 10% of total class time is devoted to teaching African American history.

Robert Cohen, a professor of history and social studies in NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, said while black history is taught in some schools, curriculums are often incomplete.

In an unpublished op-ed shared with CBS News, Cohen writes that "the George Floyd tragedy is the latest reminder that much of America has yet to come to grips with its history of police brutality and murder of Black people."

"A good place to begin rectifying this ignorance is in our nation's classrooms, which need to offer a realistic approach to this history," the op-ed reads.

Cohen believes educators should rethink how they teach about Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech.

"MLK is often presented in schools as a dreamer rather than a penetrating critic of American racism," Cohen told CBS News via email. "So even though his 'I have a dream' speech offers a scorching indictment of racism and its history in the U.S., that part of his speech — including his attack on police brutality — is ignored.

Westenley Alcenat, an assistant professor of History, Urban & American Studies at Fordham University, says black history curriculums in all schools are either "inadequate, inaccurate, or simply non-existent." 
 
"I went to high school in Minneapolis, actually, exactly in the same areas that were deeply affected by the George Floyd incident," Alcenat told CBS News. "I can confidently tell you that much of what I know regarding American history within the context of what contributions or roles black people made to it... was not something that I really learned as much about in high school as something I learned in adulthood." 
 
Alcenat said African American history is often sequestered from the larger narrative of American history. Instead, children at all education levels should be learning about the contributions African Americans made throughout history.
 
"We are not taught enough about how black men and women put their lives on the line to create what we know today as the multiracial vision of American democracy," Alcenat said. 
 
"Given the type of society we're striving towards, the type of society we'd like to be, let's let our kids know very early on what [African Americans'] particular contributions really are," he said. 
 
In the wake of nationwide protests against racial injustice, new efforts are being made by many American institutions to advance diversity and equality and address longstanding biases. Companies are suddenly recognizing the need to rebrand products like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben's due to their racist imagery, the country band Lady Antebellum changed its name, and NASCAR banned the Confederate flag.

While these changes may be welcome, some believe real progress can only be made if a fuller version of history is taught in schools. 

"Without knowledge of history, how do you put together an empathetic, humane response to horrible situations like the George Floyd murder, which we know is a symptom of the larger historical forces of racism in this country?" Alcenat said. "It's incredibly important that we try to provide a correctness to how it's all being taught at the moment. Or else we risk not necessarily repeating history, we risk not knowing how to deal with ourselves when these moments of history come upon us."

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