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Surrounded by history, teachers pledge to ‘teach truth’ about racism

“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.” – Abraham Lincoln

Teachers at Grizzlies Prep know the complicated racial history of their school and the Downtown block where it sits.

They know the block, between streets named for two Founding Fathers, Adams and Jefferson, was the site of a  opens in a new windowthriving slave market in the 1840s and 1850s.

They know the city’s most infamous slave trader, Nathan Bedford Forrest,  opens in a new windowlived there in a brick tenement before he became a Confederate war hero and a Ku Klux Klan wizard.

They also know their charter school for boys in grades 5-8 is a product of that history.

opens in a new windowMemphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School opened in 2012 to address generations of race-based inequities in public education.

Grizzlies Prep teacher Alex Iberg chats with students during class on Thursday, May 27. A new state law imposes restrictions on what K-12 teachers can say about race and racism. “Are we even allowed to talk with our students about our own school?” asked Iberg, who teaches seventh-grade social studies. “How do we tell the truth and not break the law?” (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)
Grizzlies Prep teacher Alex Iberg chats with students during class on Thursday, May 27. A new state law imposes restrictions on what K-12 teachers can say about race and racism. “Are we even allowed to talk with our students about our own school?” asked Iberg, who teaches seventh-grade social studies. “How do we tell the truth and not break the law?” (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

“Are we even allowed to talk with our students about our own school?” asked Alex Iberg, who teaches seventh-grade social studies at Grizz Prep. “How do we tell the truth and not break the law?”

opens in a new windownew state law, shepherded through the state House and Senate this year by a handful of white legislators and opposed by all 17 Black legislators, imposes restrictions on what K-12 teachers can say about race and racism.

The new law has pushed Iberg and his colleagues at Grizz Prep into the middle of an expanding culture war over how to teach students about racism in America.

On Saturday, June 12, Grizz Prep teachers plan to join others from across the county and country for a  opens in a new windowDay of Action, organized by the Zinn Education Project and Black Lives Matter at School.

They plan to gather at 10:30 a.m. at the corner of B.B. King (Third Street) and Adams, site of the old slave market, then walk down Main, stopping at the Schools for Freedmen historical marker at Beale, the Memphis Massacre marker in Army Park and the National Civil Rights Museum.

Teachers will be encouraged to sign a Pledge to Teach the Truth: “We will continue our commitment to develop critical thinking that supports students to better understand problems in our society, and to develop collective solutions to those problems. We are for truth-telling and uplifting the power of organizing and solidarity that move us toward a more just society.”

Iberg signed the pledge.

“Students deserve to receive an objective, unadulterated version of history. Re-writing, selectively representing and avoiding history have no place in a democratic society,” he wrote.

Eddie Walsh teaches eighth-grade social studies at Grizzlies Prep. “I refuse to lie to my students,” he wrote on a Pledge to Teach the Truth. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)
Eddie Walsh teaches eighth-grade social studies at Grizzlies Prep. “I refuse to lie to my students,” he wrote on a Pledge to Teach the Truth. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

So did Eddie Walsh, who teaches eighth-grade social studies at Grizz Prep. “I refuse to lie to my students,” he wrote.

The walk and pledge are meant to call attention to new laws in Tennessee and three other states that restrict classroom discussions about race and racism. Similar laws are being considered in at least 10 more states.

The new laws take aim at critical race theory, antiracism and other efforts to examine how laws and policies perpetuate systemic racism and explain persistent racial inequities in education, employment, housing, health, wealth, criminal justice and other aspects of society.

“Our state-funded schools should be teaching American history, not Marxist propaganda,” said state Rep. John Ragan, the Oak Ridge Republican who sponsored the new law.

“This law is itself an example of systemic racism, the very thing it tries to discredit,” said state Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat who voted against the new law.

The new Tennessee law allows for “impartial instruction on the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on race.”

But it prohibits discussion of systemic racism, the concept that “a meritocracy is inherently racist” or designed “by a particular race to oppress members of another race.”

The law allows the state to withhold funding from schools that fail to follow the guidelines.

Educators at Grizz Prep say the new law has put them in a particularly difficult position. The school is developing a new African American history course for eighth-graders scheduled to begin in August.

“This law doesn’t make sense,” said Tim Ware, a former history teacher who became the executive director of Grizz Prep earlier this year.

“Our school sits on property where a so-called businessman bought and sold humans who look like our students, a man who profited from an entire system that privileged one racial group over another,” Ware said. “If you can’t talk about that system and its consequences, then you can’t describe the educational inequities that are rooted in public education, but that is literally why our school exists.”

Learning from history

“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unloved, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” – Maya Angelou

One day late last month, Iberg talked to his seventh-grade students about the 2020 police killing of George Floyd and the police reform bill in Congress that bears his name.

Iberg asked his students to examine the bill, to mark sections they agree with, sections they don’t and which they want to learn more about.

“We’ve been learning about Spanish colonization of America and the introduction of African slavery,” Iberg said. “The anniversary of George Floyd’s death was a good way to connect that past to the present. History is always in the news.”

Tennessee’s  opens in a new windowacademic standards ask social studies teachers to “identify patterns of continuity and change over time, making connections to the present.”

“Those connections make history meaningful and engage students,” Iberg said.

Those connections are why Iberg became a social studies teacher.

He grew up in the Memphis suburbs and attended Lausanne Collegiate School, Houston High and Rhodes College, where he majored in German. That’s what he planned to teach.

Then he took an urban studies class taught by Dr. Marcus Pohlmann, author of the 2008 book “ opens in a new windowOpportunity Lost: Race and Poverty in Memphis City Schools.”

“Post-industrial economic changes and a history of racial exclusion have combined to make it extremely difficult for African American children to rise from rags to riches,” Pohlmann argues.

The course and the book opened Iberg’s eyes to racial inequities in public education.

“Growing up outside Memphis, I was sort of aware of the educational inequities between the city and suburbs, but I had no idea how wide the gap really was and the systemic racism that caused and sustained it,” Iberg said. “I wanted to do something about it.”

After college, Iberg joined Memphis Teaching Fellows. He taught one year at Georgian Hills Middle School in Frayser before becoming a founding social studies teacher at Grizz Prep.

Iberg teaches world history and geography. The state has established 65 content standards for seventh-grade social studies.

Topics span the globe and the Middle Ages, from 5th-Century China to 17th-Century America.

There are 75 content standards for eighth-grade social studies – the first of a two-year survey of American history and geography.

Topics range from the founding of Jamestown in 1607 to the end of Reconstruction in 1877. There’s a special emphasis on Tennessee history.

But the state’s  opens in a new windowsocial studies standards are more than a list of names, events and dates from history.

“It is through social studies that students prepare for their futures by opening doors to a more diverse, competitive workforce and responsible citizenry,” the standards explain.

“Teachers should center instruction on inquiry-based models, which require students to engage in critical thinking, self-assessment, reasoning, problem-solving, collaboration and investigation in order to make connections in new and innovative ways.”

Iberg, who is chair of Grizz Prep’s social studies department, says the new law makes that sort of instruction more difficult, and risky.

For example, the law bans instruction that “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race.”

Teachers don’t tell students how they should feel about what they are learning, Iberg said.

“But how do you not feel guilt or anger or some sort of distress when you’re learning about slavery?” Iberg said. “How do teachers prevent a student from feeling?”

Iberg and his colleagues say teachers need to be able to speak openly and honestly about American history and race. But the new law puts them in a precarious position.

“I teach history as objectively and factually as possible, but I can’t whitewash it,” Iberg said. “I’m always careful about what I say. But this is the first time I’m afraid we’ll lose funding because I’m teaching real history.”

Controlling the message

“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.” – Aldous Huxley

Tennessee’s academic standards focus on content, not instruction.

The standards determine “what students should know, understand and be able to do by the end of a grade level or course; however, the standards do not dictate how a teacher should teach them. In other words, the standards do not dictate curriculum.”

The General Assembly sometimes does.

Over the years, state legislators have  opens in a new windowenacted laws that tell teachers what they can and cannot say about religion, science, sex and a handful of other potentially controversial topics.

For example, teachers can talk about “the impact of the Bible on literature, art, music, culture and politics.”

They are encouraged to talk about “the history of traditional winter celebrations” and say “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy holidays.”

But religious topics must be addressed “in an objective and nondevotional manner with no attempt made to indoctrinate students … and not disparage or encourage a commitment to a particular set of religious beliefs.”

Sex education must be called “family life education.”

Teachers can present “facts concerning human reproduction, hygiene and health concerns, and include presentations encouraging abstinence from sexual intercourse during the teen and pre-teen years.”

They can “educate students on the age of consent, puberty, pregnancy, childbirth, sexually transmitted diseases, including but not limited to HIV/AIDS, and the financial and emotional responsibility of raising a child.”

And they can answer “in good faith any question, or series of questions, germane and material to the course” asked by the student.

They cannot encourage, advocate or condone “gateway sexual activity . . . that could precipitate engagement in a non-abstinent behavior” and “shall place primary emphasis on abstinence from premarital intimacy and on the avoidance of drug abuse in controlling the spread of AIDS.”

State law requires teachers to talk about some topics.

“All teachers employed by the public schools” must discuss “the uses, purposes and methods of displaying the American flag and other patriotic emblems, and the history and usage of the Pledge of Allegiance.”

All public high schools must offer a course in “the essentials of the free enterprise system,” “the intrinsic rewards of hard work” and such personal finance concepts as earning an income, saving and spending, the use of credit and budgeting.

And “the course of instruction in all public schools should include, at some appropriate grade level or levels, black history and culture and the contribution of black people to the history and development of this country and of the world.”

The new law is the first to tell teachers what they can and cannot say about race.

It’s also the first that “requires the commissioner to withhold state funds” from schools that “knowingly violate the prohibitions.”

”If the goal of the new law is to prohibit discussion on systematic racism, anti-racism, white privilege, white supremacy and so on, then how are we ever going to address the problems we have in this country?” said Dr. Andre Johnson, professor of rhetoric and media studies at the University of Memphis.

”What tools will children learn to use to discuss these things? What this law does is effectively close any hopes at constructive communication and deliberate dialogue aimed at making a country a more perfect union.”

Correcting history

History is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten.” – Santayana

On the first day of June, Eddie Walsh talked to his eighth-grade social studies students about the 1921 Tulsa Massacre.

“It was the 100th anniversary, and one of the students asked about it,” Walsh said. “It’s directly relevant to what I teach.”

Eighth-grade social studies spans more than 350 years of U.S. history, from the founding of Jamestown in 1607 to the end of Reconstruction in 1877.

The word “massacre” appears only twice in Tennessee’s social studies standards.

The first refers to the 1760 massacre at Fort Loudon, during which Cherokee warriors killed about 30 colonists.

The second refers to the 1770 Boston Massacre, during which British soldiers killed five colonists.

The standards do not include any of the estimated 100 massacres of Black Americans that took place between the end of the Civil War and the 1940s.

That includes the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, during which white mobs murdered more than 300 people, burned 40 city blocks and left 10,000 Black residents homeless.

That also includes the  opens in a new window1866 Memphis Massacre, during which more than 40 newly freed men, women and children were killed by hundreds of armed white men, many of them police officers.

“Many members of the mob were Irish immigrants, and I’m an Irish American,” Walsh said. “And this happened right down the street from this school. How can I follow the standards of ‘addressing the problems confronting newly freed slaves’ and not talk about that?”

Walsh grew up in a Chicago suburb. As a kid, he loved to watch the History Channel. “That was before it was all ‘Ice Road Truckers,’ ” Walsh said.

He majored in history at the University of Illinois, then joined Teach for America, which brought him to Memphis. He taught social studies at American Way Middle School before joining Grizz Prep six years ago.

Walsh likes the charter school’s all-boys setting.

“The boys do a little less showing out, with no girls around to impress, and they stay dorky longer,” he said.

He also likes eighth-grade’s focus on U.S. history. “It’s much more engaging for the kids than talking about ancient China,” he said.

Walsh worries the new law will require history teachers, especially those who teach U.S. history, to ignore reality.

He pointed to a section of the new law that prohibits discussion of the idea that “a meritocracy is inherently racist.”

“Ideally, that’s true, but we don’t live in a vacuum,” Walsh said. “I’m lying to kids if I give them the impression that everyone has been given an equal opportunity.”

He also wonders how the law can require “the impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history” while the standards require students to engage in critical thinking and problem-solving.

“How do you have an impartial discussion about slavery?” he said. “There’s no neutral position. And the idea of government stepping in to outlaw thoughts about certain things, well historically speaking, that’s the first step in a lot of bad stories.”

The good and the bad

“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” – James Baldwin

The small park next to Grizz Prep includes two historical markers erected more than six decades apart.

Tim Huebner speaks at a rededication of a plaque noting the location of the Downtown slave market owned by Nathan Bedford Forrest April 7. The marker was erected as a response to a 1950s-era historical marker that failed to mention how Forrest made his fortune. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)
Tim Huebner speaks at a rededication of a plaque noting the location of the Downtown slave market owned by Nathan Bedford Forrest April 7. The marker was erected as a response to a 1950s-era historical marker that failed to mention how Forrest made his fortune. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

The two markers tell remarkably different stories about the same historic figure.

They also give Grizz Prep students an opportunity to “develop historical awareness by recognizing how and why historical accounts change over time,” as state standards require.

The first marker is titled “ opens in a new windowForrest’s Early Home.” It was erected in 1955, a year after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the racial segregation of public schools.

“In a house which stood here in antebellum days lived Nathan Bedford Forrest,” the marker says. “Following marriage in 1845, he came to Memphis, where his business enterprises made him wealthy.”

The second marker is titled “ opens in a new windowForrest and the Memphis Slave Trade.” It was erected in 2018 and dedicated April 4 that year — the 100th commemoration of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis.

It provides more historical detail about Forrest’s “business enterprise.”

Helario Reyna (left) and Tim Huebner unveil a rededicated plaque outside Calvary Episcopal Church in Downtown Memphis on April 7, 2021. The historical marker notes the location of the Downtown slave market owned by Nathan Bedford Forrest. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)
Helario Reyna (left) and Tim Huebner unveil a rededicated plaque outside Calvary Episcopal Church in Downtown Memphis on April 7, 2021. The historical marker notes the location of the Downtown slave market owned by Nathan Bedford Forrest. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

“From 1854 to 1860, Nathan Bedford Forrest operated a profitable slave trading business at this site,” the second marker says. “In the decades after the Civil War, many white southerners chose to portray Forrest as a military hero, thus excusing or ignoring Forrest’s buying and selling of human beings.”

The first marker was sponsored by the Tennessee Historical Commission.

The second marker was sponsored by Calvary Episcopal Church, Rhodes College and the National Park Service.

“We attempted to tell a more complete story of the site,” said Dr. Tim Huebner, a church member and Rhodes College history professor. His students researched Forrest’s life. “Only by confronting the past – rather than suppressing it – can we build a better future for all of us.”

Was Forrest a businessman or a slave trader? A hero or a villain? Was he acting as an individual or was he a product of a racist social and economic structure that persists even today?

Those are the kinds of historical questions Cartavius Black wants to explore next year with Grizz Prep’s eighth-graders.

Black will be teaching the school’s new African American history class.

“I want my classroom of Black boys to understand that our history is not confined to slavery, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement,” Black said.

“Students must understand that race is a social construct created solely for the oppression of Black Americans, and the concept is directly tied to the ‘discovery’ of the west by European colonists.”

Black was raised in Memphis by a single mom. They moved from one apartment to another in southeast Memphis while she worked and saved enough to buy a house in Fayette County.

Black graduated as valedictorian from Fayette-Ware Comprehensive High School in 2011. He majored in political science at the University of Tennessee.

“I decided to begin teaching because young Black boys and girls around the city that I love tend not to have teachers that look like them, with experiences similar to their own,” Black said.

He joined Teach for America and taught at Hamilton Elementary in South Memphis, then at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle School in North Memphis.

Ware tapped Black to lead the new class.

State standards include an African American history course as an elective in high school but not middle school.

“I’ve always loved that James Baldwin’s quote about the horrible and beautiful aspects of American history,” Ware said. “Eighth-grade U.S. history shows much of the horrible of African American history, but it leaves a lot of the ‘beautiful’ untaught.”

In the new class, students will learn about the artistic, literary and musical contributions of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s and 1940s.

They will learn about the beliefs and influence of scholars such as George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.

They will learn about the impact of courageous Black women such as Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and Mary McLeod Bethune.

“This class will give our students a chance to go deeper into their own history,” Ware said.

Ware and his teachers are still waiting for guidance from the state board of education about how to help students think critically about American history in the midst of a partisan culture war.

“History isn’t all bad, and it isn’t all good,” Ware said. “As teachers, it’s our job to lay out the facts and to help our students grapple with the facts and draw their own conclusions. Those conclusions shouldn’t be made for them, not by teachers or politicians.”

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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