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American Slavery Isn't Taught Well In Schools In Texas Or Across The U.S., Report Says

Lara Solt
KERA News special contributor
A new report finds students aren't learning the complete history of slavery in the U.S.

A new report out by the Southern Poverty Law Center finds American students don’t fully understand many facts about slavery and the role it played in U.S. history. The study also finds that educators aren't adequately teaching students about it.

The report surveyed high school seniors and social studies teachers. It also looked at state curriculum standards and some of the more commonly used U.S. history textbooks.

Among the findings:

  • Only 8 percent of high school seniors could say slavery was the main cause of the Civil War.
  • Nearly 70 percent didn’t know a constitutional amendment formally ended slavery.
  • Fewer than 1 in 4 students could explain how provisions in the Constitution supported slavery.

Maureen Costello is director of Teaching Tolerance at the Southern Poverty Law Center and a former history teacher. One big problem, she says, is how slavery is taught.

“It’s taught with a lot of mixed messages…starting in kindergarten. So kindergarten and first grade, kids learn about Sojourner Truth or they learn about Harriet Tubman. So great, Harriet Tubman, you know, led slaves out to freedom," Costello said. "But what is slavery? Well we don’t talk about that till fifth grade.”

The report by the Southern Poverty Law Center gave low grades to a Texas textbook, saying it gives "lip service to slavery."

In 2015, the publisher of a Texas social studies textbook promised to make changes after a Houston family noticed the book identified African slaves as workers.

Costello says across the country slavery isn’t covered thoroughly until high school. But by then, most kids know more about what she calls, “the good stories." Stories like how abolitionists helped slaves.

The other issue, she says is that slavery is often taught as a problem in the South. Students don't understand the complexity of the slavery and how it affected the North.

“We don’t really talk about how it was a source of profit and power," Costello said. "And we don’t connect it to the present very well. And we also don’t talk about how racism grew up to defend slavery and how many of the racist ideas that were developed by slave holders are still in the American mind today.”

For the past year, Teaching Tolerance has been working with educators to help them teach American slavery. They've come up with some recommendations, like using historical documents, and making sure textbooks include the lasting effects of racial oppression in the U.S.

“Educators – 90 percent of them – say they think it’s important," Costello said. "They want to teach it. But often they don’t know what to teach or how to teach it.”

Costello said school districts can help by offering more training for teachers to teach slavery.

Teaching Hard History American Slavery by KERANews on Scribd

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.