After shopping in downtown Tallahassee, Wilhelmina Jakes and Carrie Patterson caught a city bus. They paid their dimes and, as usual, searched for seats in the "colored" section.
The front seat in the "whites" section had space. So they sat.
Even after the bus driver ordered them to get up.
Police arrested the Florida A&M coeds for — as the June 11, 1956, issue of Life magazine reported — "placing [themselves] in a position to incite a riot."
Just as Rosa Parks' stand on sitting where she pleased six months earlier sparked the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., protesting A&M students quickly swore off city bus rides.
That solidarity also gave birth to the Inter-Civic Council — a group of businessmen, preachers and activists led by the Rev. C.K. Steele that threw in with the boycotters.
Nine months into the boycott, federal Judge Emmett Choate struck down Miami's apartheid bus laws as unconstitutional, thus invalidating all such laws statewide. And one of the civil-rights movement's early seismic victories became history.
History the likes of which Florida public schools aren't fully teaching 17 years after the state mandated they must. Or so says the Inter-Civic Council, which recently filed a largely symbolic complaint with the state Attorney General's Office — which has no authority over state curriculum. The group filed a similar complaint two years ago.
In signing the 1994 law, then-Gov. Lawton Chiles declared, "The history of African-Americans must not be minimized or trivialized."
Yet school districts, the group says, have failed to substantively integrate slavery, the African Diaspora, the abolition movement and black societal contributions into lessons as the law outlines.
Is it right?
Let me put this way: If American history and geography are being treated as stepchildren because of high-stakes testing — as borne out by students' dismal showings on national assessments — does anyone honestly believe black history is getting star treatment?
Not Bernadette C. Kelley, chairwoman of the state's African American History Task Force, who concedes, "There is still a great amount of work that needs to be accomplished by school districts to meet the requirements of the law."
Critics such as Mary Fears, a retired Volusia County schools media specialist and co-producer of "Filling The Gap," a black-history docudrama that some state schools now use, partly blame textbooks that distill black history to cotton picking and shout-outs to a handful of cherry-picked heroes.
They "perpetuate the perception … expressed in slave literature, that people of African descent are inferior in mental capacity and lacking in intelligence by only showing illustrations of slaves in cotton fields," Fears says, while ignoring, for example, slave inventors, artisans and craftsmen.
Of course, Florida Statute 1003.42 only provides a skeleton for black-history instruction. Discussions germane to African-American history are sprinkled throughout Sunshine State Standards. Still, it's up to school districts to flesh it all out. And some districts boast more meat on those bones than others.
In Central Florida, some at least appear to be doing more than slapping blackface on the curriculum during Black History Month. Like Volusia, many districts insist they infuse black history into all subject areas, integrating relevant black authors into literature lessons, for instance (an approach I've touted in this space).
"African-American history is American history," says Jason Caros, Volusia's K-12 social-studies curriculum specialist. "It shouldn't be put in a box and taught in a month."
That sounds good. But deeds carry more weight than words. Caros says that Volusia has ramped up its efforts in recent years. Orange, which jazzes up its lessons with archival documents, doesn't really hit black history hard until middle school.
Teaching black history thoroughly and effectively will boil down to convincing decision-makers of its overarching worth.
As Fears said in an email, black students "feel 'victims' of their inherited past because they do not read in their textbooks much during the slavery years that will give to them a feeling of pride in their inheritance."
A more expansive recounting of black history inoculates black kids, who may see only hopelessness and fatalism in their lives, with an affirming dose of self-pride and inspiration.
Teaching black history is just as important for their peers, who might be afflicted with dangerous stereotypes.
Or, as Lawton Chiles rightly put it, "Knowledge is the antidote to the poison of prejudice."
A cure that mustn't be rationed.
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