According to a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, only 8% of American high school students can identify slavery as a cause of the Civil War. The report, which surveyed 1,000 high school students nationwide, did not break down results by state, but this should be a wakeup call for Illinois. Teaching about America’s history of racism, from slavery through the Civil War to the present, is essential to move towards a more united, equitable, and anti-racist society. We need the legislature to reinvigorate the Amistad Commission, which was founded in 2005 to support Illinois teachers with this work.
I was a high school history teacher and am now a professor who prepares future history teachers, both in Chicago. I was not at all surprised by the survey results because I have spent past eight years watching our social studies teachers struggle to teach about African American history and racism. I’ve had future teachers confess to me that they didn’t know enough to teach Black history, and I’ve watched a teacher in a widely respected school tell students that “Black people got the right to vote when white people decided it was time.” We can’t educate our students for a better future if teachers are mired in historical ignorance.
The Law Center’s report found that the most commonly used textbooks lack content about slavery, and that state educational standards generally fail to address slavery at all. This is how we end up with a U.S. history textbook from McGraw-Hill, one of the largest textbook publishers in the world, referring to slaves as immigrant “workers.” Our current education policies in Illinois do nothing to preempt these kinds of harmful mishaps. There are no statewide criteria to review classroom materials. The state social science standards do not address race explicitly, and future social studies teachers are not required to take courses on the history of any of the diverse people that make up Illinois.
Illinois tried to address these problems in the past. When the legislature founded the Amistad Commission, it’s purpose was to improve teaching about slavery and its enduring legacies. Made up of appointees from the governor and both parties, the commission was charged with developing curriculum guidelines, liaising with textbook publishers, and other projects that would better educate Illinois students about “the sad history of racism in this country, and the principles of human rights in a civilized society.”
But the Amistad Commission struggled to meet this goal. In its first years, the commission created nothing of note. A2009 audit found that the commission spent $98,000 on a catered event for 250 people and set aside another $10,000 for administrative costs with no tangible products to show.
When Dr. Carol Adams joined in 2013, the commission enjoyed a fruitful period of collaboration with the DuSable Museum that generated 15 excellent lesson plans covering African and African American history plus training events for teachers to use them. High quality resources like these are a pressing need for teachers across the state, and Dr. Adams’ leadership showed how it could be done in a very efficient, economical way.
Unfortunately, the Amistad Commission is now practically defunct, with all of its memberships lapsed. The governor and legislature must revive the Amistad Commission. This time the commission should be overseen by the State Board of Education, and the appointees should not be political. Instead, seats can be dedicated to historians, teachers, district administrators, cultural institution leaders, and high school students.
If we seek a more fair and just Illinois, we need to use every tool available. The Amistad Commission can again play this role for educators across the state.