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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

‘We haven’t taught our own history’

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“Thank you for fighting,” a woman told a group of protesters young enough to be her grandchildren at a demonstration late last month. “I was out here when I was your age.”

Many are calling today’s protests the “second Civil Rights Movement.” While communication methods such as social media and mobile phones didn’t exist in the 1960s, historian and professor Paul Mullins said many of the conversations — such as the debate surrounding Confederate monuments — remain the same. 

“When they were put up, the [Confederate] monuments were intended to distort history,” Mullins, an anthropology professor at IUPUI, said. “They were rooted in white privilege and segregation.”

Mullins said many of the monuments were first displayed roughly 50 years after the Civil War ended, “in a moment where North and South white combatants decided to make peace with each other.”

Many Confederate monuments, including in Indianapolis’ Garfield Park, have been taken down in recent weeks after mounting pressure from activist groups around the country. Mullins said taking down these monuments shows “good faith” and is a way to move forward with meaningful conversations related to race relations in this country. 

“There can be interesting discussions about monuments, but it’s not productive until the vast majority are torn down,” Mullins said. “Part of bringing people in good faith to have those discussions involves taking them down because they are material reminders of the past.”

And while some — on both sides of the monument debate — view taking them down to be pointless, Mullins said it’s exactly the opposite. 

“Taking down the monuments is simply window dressing for addressing structural racism and privilege,” Mullins said. “It’s not simply meaningless. In Richmond [Virginia], Monument Avenue is a very different social space than it was just a month and a half ago. There are more conversations happening.”

Several Confederate monuments have been removed from Monument Avenue in the wake of George Floyd’s death in May. Virginia Gov. Levar Stoney recently announced plans to remove the remaining Confederate monuments in the upcoming months. 

The issues surrounding history education go well beyond monuments, however. In many instances, there are chapters missing from American history books. While students learn about the Boston Massacre, the irony of a formerly enslaved Black man who escaped slavery — Crispus Attucks — being the first person to die for America is often overlooked. Students learn of Thomas Jefferson drafting the Declaration of Independence, but the story of Sally Hemmings — the 14-year-old girl, owned as a slave by Jefferson and who birthed at least six of his children — is often untold. 

What impact, then, does that have on Americans’ understanding of our own history? 

David Olaleye, a Ben Davis High School graduate, remembers learning the Founding Fathers owned slaves, but was taught they were “different.”

“I think that my history classes tried passing them off as being nicer owners,” Olaleye, 23, said. “Saying that they tried to set them free in their wills. I remember that I knew about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings while studying for a Black history contest that I was doing in high school, and ended up learning about a bunch of things that weren’t taught in school. That definitely disillusioned me with a lot of what I learned in some history classes. … I stopped saying the pledge of allegiance after that contest.”

Olaleye recalls Black history being reduced to lessons on slavery in February, and reading about Nat Turner’s rebellion, which garnered just a paragraph in his history textbook. 

“As if [slavery] was the main thing to learn about Black history,” Olaleye said. “Not Black Wall Street in Oklahoma, not the Haitian Revolution, not about Black inventors … but slavery. In retrospect, it feels really repulsive.”

Jessika Jones, 24, didn’t learn the Founding Fathers enslaved people as a student, but said it would have changed her perspective.

“Man, that would have been a big help in shaping how I felt about things,” Jones said. “They [teachers] sugar coat it and I had to basically do all of my own research.”

Jones said she took it upon herself to learn more about history through independent reading, which she said opened her eyes to issues she never considered to be racist before. 

“Before, I don’t wanna say that I didn’t care,” Jones said, “I just think my learning was white washed, so I just wanted to get over it like everyone else. I’ve met people who have helped me in ways that school could never. … I’ve had a lot of guilt being a Black person and ever thinking the way that I did but it all came down to what I was and wasn’t taught.”

Mullins said history classes often avoid the complexities of historical figures and events to keep things simple and keep students comfortable.

 “We haven’t taught our own history,” Mullins said of IUPUI, whose creation displaced several predominantly Black neighborhoods. “And in that respect, we are not at all unique. … Most people are comforted by a good versus bad, easy story. … History isn’t like that. 

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

Civil War statueJazmin Perez

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