CEDAR RAPIDS — Schools need to teach the “ugly wounds” of American history — including racial injustice and systemic racism — to better work toward equity.
That was the message put forth during an online panel hosted this week by the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission and United Way of East Central Iowa in honor of Black History Month.
“We have to know our history in order to move forward as a country,” said Ruth White, founder and executive director of the Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success and chairwoman of the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission.
“We have to know the history of the people who made this country, and the people who made this country look like me.”
Speaking on a panel about equity and education, White advocated for teaching and celebrating Black history — not just slavery and the civil rights movement — to all students so they can understand the “value of our heritage.”
Her Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success is a six-week summer program in Cedar Rapids for Black students to learn about Black history, literature, math and science and a post-secondary seminar to help prepare them for college.
Tuesday’s panel discussion was the first in a series of equity conversations planned for Black History Month. The free online events will take place each Tuesday in February from 6:30 to 8 p.m.
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The purpose of the series is to build awareness and understanding around equity within the areas of education, financial stability and health.
During Tuesday’s education-themed discussion, the other panelists were Eric Thompson, director of the Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success, and John Tursi, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of the Corridor.
The panelists addressed the 1619 Project, a New York Times initiative that looks at the role of slavery, discrimination and white supremacy in American history.
Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, has sponsored a bill in the Iowa Legislature to ban schools, community colleges and state universities from using any history curriculum obtained from the 1619 Project.
But both White and Thompson agreed that the project should be taught in the state’s schools.
“The 1619 Project is straight fact,” Thompson said.
“If we don’t start at the beginning and learn our history and do that work, we will continually make the same mistakes,” White added.
White said when she was in school, she learned about Black people through the eyes of white authors such as Mark Twain and William Faulkner.
She said she wasn’t taught about anyone in history or literature who was Black until she started her Ph.D. program at the University of Iowa in American studies with an emphasis in African-American history and literature.
“That was my ah-ha moment,” she said. “I knew we had done great things, but I didn’t see it in my education.”
White continued her education and earned her Ph.D. because she was “looking for herself,” she recalled.
White said Black students don’t see themselves reflected in the education system because they are not taught about Black history and don’t have educators who look like and understand them.
Twenty percent of non-white students don’t graduate from high school in Linn County, compared with only 9 percent of their white peers, Tursi said.
“Clearly there is a disparity that needs to be addressed,” he said.
The Career Academy, which is part of the Boys and Girls Club in Marion, aims to improve graduation rates by showing children potential career paths.
Fifth- through eighth-grade students in the Career Academy visit at least 40 companies in Eastern Iowa that pay well and have jobs available.
“The goal is to show kids opportunity so they have a reason to graduate high school. That starts in middle school, before they even get to high school, so they can see there’s something for them,” Tursi said.
Reflecting on the disadvantages still facing students of color, Thompson noted that Black, brown, biracial and Native Americans were banned from public schools from 1647 to 1865. Any learning that happened was at night or in a small setting.
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America has not been the “land of the free” for Black and biracial Americans, Thompson said.
He noted that it wasn’t until 1954 that segregating schools became illegal, but schools weren’t given a timeline on when desegregation must occur.
So, he said, “You have hundreds of years of segregation, lack of equity, lack of equality and poor health care.”
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If you go
• What: Black History Month series hosted by the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission and United Way of East Central Iowa
• When: Tuesdays in February from 6:30 to 8 p.m.
• Where: Online via Zoom
• To register: Go to https://www.uweci.org/events-blog/event/equity-conversation-series/.