Jaylen Wims didn’t really learn about U.S. racial history in the classroom.
Neither did Amarah Anderson.
Sarah Adams’ experience is a little different—she was taught some facts about the nation’s racial history. There were gaps, however.
“We never learned about the Black Panther Party. We never really learned too much about Malcolm X. It was always MLK and his peaceful movement, and history is just very filtered in school,” Adams says. “My parents, they’ve always pushed history, and they’ve always wanted me to learn important things.”
The first time she found dissonance between what was being taught and what she learned on her own was the history of the Children’s Crusade march in 1963.
“They were getting arrested, and (the authorities) had dogs and hoses,” Adams says. “We never learned about that in school. Those are the kinds of things that they hide to try and make history look way more prettier than it is.”
For the third story in the Rochester Beacon and Good Conflict partnership, we talked to the people most impacted by a school’s decision to include or exclude U.S. racial history in its curriculum: students. Adams is a Rochester City School District student, and the two others graduated last year (Wims through the Urban-Suburban program in Pittsford); all are affiliated with Rochester’s Teen Empowerment.
“There’s a reason you walk into a suburban school and see a lot more white kids and you go to a city school and there’s much more diversity, a lot of Black and brown kids, and there’s still are some white kids here,” Wims says. “I think it’s sort of being swept under the rug, why it is that way? Whether people want to dive into that conversation or how they approach it, is always up for debate.”
Americans’ views of the nation’s racial history are deeply divided. Many school board meetings in the recent past, including in the Rochester region, have erupted in furor over teaching children about slavery and racism. Critical race theory has become a household term. Diversity initiatives at schools have slid under the microscope.
Despite a realization of racial disparities here and nationwide, a majority of whites do not support teaching how racism continues to impact American society today in public schools, a COVID States Project survey found. Forty-six percent of white respondents support teaching the legacy of racism, compared with 73 percent of Black respondents. These divides also are visible across political lines: Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to say increased attention to history of slavery and racism is bad for the country, according to a Pew Research report in 2021.
In their quest to understand local history, as Teen Empowerment youth ambassadors, Wims, Anderson and Adams worked on a documentary, “Clarissa Uprooted: Youth and Elders Uncover the Story of Black Rochester,” which encapsulates the history of Rochester’s Third Ward, from neighborhood comradery, international jazz music, and thriving black-owned businesses, to redlining, urban renewal, and other segregationist policies.
From gentrification to redlining and restrictive covenants in house deeds, it was new information for these young minds.
“The story that we were taught is Rosa Parks not getting off the bus, and Martin Luther King being shot while he was speaking. But we live in a predominantly Black neighborhood that was constructed purposely. I never knew why,” Anderson says.
The project taught her why.
Beyond “Clarissa Uprooted,” each of these students have enhanced their learning about the past through interactions with the community, elders and parents. They are aware of the heated debate surrounding the instruction of U.S. history. Young people are interested in knowing about the past, they believe.
“There’s the people that are saying no (to teaching racial history) and they’re sort of afraid of what that history might bring up, but it’s almost (that) there’s a lot of people that are ‘Well ,it’s been working, so why do we need to change it?,’” Wims says.
Says Anderson: “Living in the city of Rochester and being a comparison to suburban schools, it’s something that is often manipulated and translated into something different when reality is in our faces. I feel like it’s a domino effect when it comes to past history and the effect on the community that it has now. There’s a lot of youth in the city of Rochester that does not know their history, where they come from, why things are the way they are, why they’re in the same schools as their Black and brown friends.”
Wims has relied on his community to learn about racial history. He believes oral history is culture, a way of learning, staying in touch and knowing the past.
“Why do I live in an urban area? Why do so many of my mother’s relatives, and her mother; why do they not own their homes? Why do so many white kids in suburban areas, why do (their families) own their homes? What’s going on here? Why has it been like this?” he says. “You start to question. You hear the common things like ‘Oh, Black people don’t work hard enough,’ things like that. It can’t be that it’s that,” Wims says.
The “Clarissa Uprooted” project, which also examined housing policies, helped put the pieces together. It offered an explanation to some questions.
“This is why only one person in my family owns their home, has their car paid off,” Wims says. “There’s a reason I’m one of the only kids that grew up in the same home that I was born into that still has that house that I can go back into. That house is going to be generational wealth, that is generational wealth, that is the start of building generational wealth. That is what was taken from us, and that’s what we’ve been learning about.”
Adams has become even more passionate about educating herself and others. Knowledge will bring about change, she believes.
“I think that’s what happens in schools, too. It’s like there’s certain things they can’t teach us, because if they do teach us that, we could do anything,” she says. “If we really know the true history, it won’t be allowed to repeat itself. That was a big thing that we learned all throughout the project.”
Adds Anderson: “It’s like my father always told me, ‘You don’t know the future if you don’t remember the past.’ For me as a student, I feel like (schools are) too caught up into statistics and making sure that we have an equal education, that they forget (the) parts that makes us who we are.”
The Rochester Beacon-Good Conflict partnership is designed to examine whether individual beliefs and perceptions about contentious and polarizing topics can be expanded through written and video journalism and moderated discussions using the Good Conflict approach. After watching this video or the others in the series, you can take part in a survey here.