After several months of sustained activism (passing out flyers, hosting public events and attending long school board meetings) Hate Out of Winston, a local activist group that came together during Winston’s Confederate statue controversy has succeeded in getting WSFC Schools to consider universal African American history classes in the fall. (Mandatory sounds so negative, learning African American history is a positive for WS/FCS students regardless of the color of their skin. That’s why I’m using the term universal instead of mandatory.)
Earlier today, Triad City Beat reported that “that the curriculum committee of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board will consider adding a mandatory African-American studies class to the high school curriculum at its October meeting.” Jordan Green’s article noted that several local Black politicians are publicly supporting universal African American history classes. Student Minister Effrainguan Muhammad told Green that the “Winston-Salem Local Organizing Committee has been asking for a mandatory African-American studies course for the past three years” only to get the runaround from the WSFC School Board. WSFC School Board Vice-Chair, Barbra Burke emphatically stated that the days of the board ignoring the community’s demand for universal African American history courses is over.
Universal African American history classes in WSFC Schools is a progressive proposal that both Republican and Democrat members of our “equity” school board should support. It isn’t a partisan issue. African American history can empower Black students, but it can also do a world of good for non-Black students by eliminating ignorance and misunderstandings. African American history is American history if you don’t African American history, then you don’t know American history.
While the push to get the school board to adopt universal African American history classes has received a fair amount of local press coverage, an African American history initiative that the City Council passed back in April has received very little coverage. The City’s African American Heritage Action Initiative Committee is tasked with connecting “all sectors of the African American community and a create a vision for incorporating African American contributions to the ongoing history of the City.”
The City Council has many committees appointed by the mayor that are of dubious value to the people of Winston-Salem. But a committee tasked with compiling Winston’s African American history is a worthwhile project. We all need to appreciate the contributions that African Americans have made in Winston. It was Black labor in Reynolds’ factories that produced the wealth that put Winston on the map. The unionization of RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company in the 1940s by the mostly Black women and men of Local 22 produced a “civil-rights unionism” that remains Winston’s most progressive political achievement.
Universal African American history in our schools and a comprehensive collection of local African American history from the City, these are two initiatives that we should all support.
But we must not stop there. Winston needs to come to terms with the legacy of Jim Crow and Papa Reynolds. We must examine how racism in its many forms has shaped the separate and unequal city that we live in today. Winston needs to take a page from Durham. Durham’s Bull City 150 project is a systematic look at the role of racism and exploitation in a fellow tobacco town. But beyond learning about the particulars of local Black history, Annette Scippio’s committee or another independent body should focus on the debt that African Americans in Winston are owned for decades of systematic exploitation and marginalization. Winston needs a Bull City 150-like initiative.
“The mission of Bull City 150 is to invite Durhamites to reckon with the racial and economic injustices of the past 150 years and commit to building a more equitable future. We believe that history is a powerful tool of meaning-making, and that the stories we tell each other impact the policies we create and the ways we come together to address the challenges in our community today.
Bull City 150 uses public history exhibitions to do extensive community engagement and to facilitate educational opportunities, deep dialogue, and a collective reckoning about how we got here and what is needed to ensure a that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. We encourage visitors to make a personal connection to the past, gain a deeper appreciation for the impact history has on the present, and question their own role as history-makers.”