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Florida’s African-American history standards blasted at South Florida town hall

Hundreds arrived a historic Black church looking for answers about Florida’s controversial African-American history standards and left ready to fight against what they see as increasing racism in the state.

The one person they hoped to get answers from at Thursday night education town hall — Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz — declined to appear after initially agreeing to attend.

So those attending spent much of the evening discussing how to fight against the DeSantis movement and the growing conservative activism marked by groups like Moms for Liberty, who have fought to get books removed from classrooms.

“This is a tremendously important moment,” Miami-Dade School Board member Steve Gallon told the crowd at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Miami Gardens. “This moment, however, cannot be guided, driven by emotion. It has to be followed through with action. We have to individually and collectively decide we’re going to take a moment and turn it into a movement.”

Many said they were disappointed Diaz was absent.

“After personally confirming his attendance, it is deeply disappointing that Commissioner Diaz now lacks the will and courage to defend his Department’s misguided curriculum changes,” state Sen. Shevrin Jones, who organized the event, said Wednesday.

“Instead, the Commissioner and DeSantis’ administration have once again turned their back on the largest Black city in the state and shown who they are working for: not us,” said Jones, D-Miami Gardens. “The people deserve answers, with or without the commissioner, and we encourage community members to attend to ask questions and voice concern over these guidelines.”

Diaz posted on social media that he gave plenty of notice that he wouldn’t be able to attend Thursday’s event.

“There was nothing sudden about my inability to attend Senator Jones’s town hall,” Diaz posted Thursday on the social media site X, formerly known as Twitter. “As I told the senator last week, I will be visiting schools throughout the state to welcome back students, parents and teachers for the first day of school.”

Several people at the event criticized Diaz for not showing up.

“Manny Diaz is a coward,” Frederick Ingram, a former Miami-Dade teacher and union leader who is now secretary-treasure of the American Federation of Teachers. “He knew this was going on. They knew how important this is to the Black community. They know they have thrown an academic bomb in our community and they should have been here tonight to face you as you speak your truth.”

Most speakers, including Democratic legislators and education officials, said the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration have taken a number of actions they see as an affront to education and minority communities, including laws designed to weaken teachers’ unions and limit what teachers can instruct related to race, gender and LGBTQ issues.

But the main topic revolved around the new African-American history standards approved last month by the state Board of Education.

Critics of the curriculum, including Vice President Kamala Harris and several Black Republican leaders, have said that one part of the curriculum there suggests there is a benefit to slavery.

“It’s not just African-American children that need to know their history. It’s other people that need to know African-American history; then they won’t say dumb stuff like Black people benefitted from slavery,” state Sen. Rosalind Osgood, a former Broward School Board member, told the crowd. “If that’s what they’re saying, they also need to say this whole nation benefitted from slavery and it was built on the backs of the Black people who worked harder than anyone else.”

Her statements received a standing ovation.

DeSantis, who is running for president, and state leaders have said the overall curriculum is robust and that the criticism is political. He has said a work group that includes Black scholars came up with the standards. One of those is William Allen, a professor emeritus of political science at Michigan State University.

“Those who were held in slavery possess skills, whether they developed them before being held in slavery, while being held in slavery or subsequently to being held in slavery, from which they benefitted when they applied themselves in the exertion of those skills,” Allen told NPR. “That’s not a statement that is at all controversial. The facts sustain it. The testimonies of the people who lived the history sustain it.”

Gallon said the standards should be reworked, not tossed out.

“There is some there good content in the standards,” he said. “There are elements that are offensive, but to throw out the baby with the bathwater would suggest all of it is bad.”

The teaching of African-American history has become a controversial topic in Florida in recent years.

DeSantis earlier this year rejected the Advanced Placement African-American studies course under development by the College Board and last year championed a law that bans critical race theory and limits some race-related lessons.

In June, the state postponed an African-American history institute for public school teachers, upsetting those who’d planned it and who feared the delay would add to teacher “angst” about teaching the subject.

Orlando Sentinel writer Leslie Postal contributed to this report.

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