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"How do we teach Kentucky history without talking about race?"

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Guest Author

With the discussion of Critical Race Theory (CRT) starting to reach a fever pitch, I am left with several questions after reading the proposed bills banning CRT from being taught in classrooms in Kentucky.

The more conversation I observe, it appears that the vagueness with which the proposed bills are written could cause great trepidation on my part when I step into a classroom. And, it appears equity and culturally-responsive teaching, which are both research-based initiatives for closing the achievement gaps in schools, are being confused with CRT.

In fact, these bills appear to be an attempt on the part of some groups to limit any and all discussion of race in our country’s history.

Studying history should not always make you feel good or proud, and if it does, you are likely doing it wrong.

We are required in Social Studies to include Kentucky connections to units we teach. It has left me wondering how we will teach several important events, places, and people from Kentucky if we are not able to discuss race as a historical factor.

Here are just a few of the subjects direct from Kentucky History that would cause me concern if these laws were to pass.

How would we talk about Isaac Murphy, arguably the most successful jockey of all time, hailing from Lexington in the heart of horse country, without talking about how black jockeys were banned from most racetracks by 1904, including Churchill Downs?

How do we explain how there were no Black jockeys in the Derby between the years between 1921 to 2000 if we do not talk about the impact of Jim Crow laws on the sport of horse racing?

How would we explain that Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson, and Georgia Davis Powers all marched with 10,000 people in Frankfort on March 5, 1964 for fair housing, and spoke that day on the front steps of our Capitol? How do we explain the need for fair housing in 1964 if we don’t talk about discrimination in laws (such as redlining) that kept Black people from being able to obtain affordable housing in the neighborhood of their choice? How do we explain the speeches they gave that day that called for an end to legal segregation and for a new law to make segregation illegal, and to enforce equal access and treatment in stores, restaurants, hotels, theaters, other businesses, and public places if we do not talk about the fact that the laws they were protesting were used to discriminate against people based on race? How would we even begin to talk about the Civil Rights Movement?

How do we explain the speech that Frederick Douglass gave to the National Convention of Colored Men in 1883 in Louisville, pieces of which could be written today to describe discrimination and racism against Black men and women?

How do we explain the existence of Camp Nelson without talking about how it was the largest recruiting, mustering, and training center for African American troops (called U.S. Colored Troops) in the Commonwealth of Kentucky and one of the largest in the United States during the Civil war without also talking about slavery, racism, and segregation of troops, which were all legal under laws at the time? How would we even begin to cover the Civil War?

How do we explain the existence of a Choctaw Indian Academy in Georgetown that was open from 1825-1845 and located roughly a mile from where Great Crossings High School is today? How do we explain that it started with 21 Choctaw boys and expanded to include students from the Creek, Pottawatomi, Uchee, Shawnee, Quapaw, Winnebago, Osage, Miami, and Seminole Tribes, without talking about laws at the time that encouraged the erasure of tribal heritage starting with schools meant to encourage assimilation and rejection of their culture without discussing racism’s role? How do we explain the existence of these schools without talking about their direct connection to the Indian Removal Act? How do you explain the mantra of the US government at the time regarding the usefulness of Indian Schools to, “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man,” without talking about racism in law and practice at the time regarding Native populations? How would we even begin to talk about the Indian Removal Act or the Trail of Tears?

How would we talk about Berea College and the Day Law? Why would there be a law in 1904 specifically targeting Berea College, and written by Breathitt County Representative Carl Day to prohibit interracial education in the Commonwealth of Kentucky at Kentucky’s only integrated school at the time without discussing the history of segregation and racism in laws and education? How would we talk about Berea College’s proud history as a needs-based college without talking about socio-economic class divisions creating a need for such an institution?

How would we explain John Marshall Harlan, Kentucky native and Supreme Court Justice, and the reasoning behind his dissent in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case? How would we explain the reasons behind him being the only dissenter on the court at the time? How would we begin to explain the Separate but Equal Doctrine established by this case in 1896 that lead directly to Jim Crow laws and legal segregation in society? How would we begin to discuss this excerpt from his famous dissent that has widely been used and quoted over the years?

“Our Constitution is color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved ... The arbitrary separation of citizens, on the basis of race, while they are on a public highway, is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution. It cannot be justified upon any legal grounds.”

How would we talk about Kentucky’s geographical importance in the Underground Railroad without mentioning slavery? How would we talk about the legal institution of slavery if we are not allowed to talk about racism? How would we talk about the need for an Underground Railroad without talking about the evils that befell those enslaved without mentioning racism and why people would want to escape slavery in the first place? How would we talk about the Missouri compromise and fugitive slave laws without talking about Kentucky native and Senator Henry Clay who proposed such bills?

How would we explain Exodusters,” former slaves who left the south, including Kentucky, for Kansas and other western states post-Civil War, when we talk about the Homestead Act? How would we describe their motivations to leave without talking about the racism that existed or the racist laws enacted in the South that made them want to leave? How would we explain the existence of a town called Nicodemus in Kansas that was founded by Kentucky Exodusters?

How would we talk about Joe Perkins, one of the 13 original freedom riders from Owensboro, Kentucky? How would we explain that he received his education at Kentucky State University, an HBCU, without explaining why HBCU’s existed at the time? How would we explain that he was the first freedom rider arrested for sitting at a whites-only shoeshine stand in Charlotte, North Carolina, without talking about what a whites only section was, or segregation, or the racism behind the Jim Crow Laws that made him sitting in a chair illegal? Why would sitting in a chair on the wrong side of the room illegal? How would I even begin to describe why there were sides of the room to begin with without talking about racism? How would we talk about how his friends were also beaten and arrested for riding a bus?

How would we talk about why Muhammad Ali’s gold medal won in the Rome Olympics in 1960 was found in the Ohio River on June 21, 2014? How would we explain the life and legacy of Muhammad Ali without mentioning the role racism played in his life and motivations? How would we explain why him being the Greatest of All Time is truly an accomplishment of more than just boxing?

Studying history should not always make you feel good or proud, and if it does, you are likely doing it wrong. We study history so that we do not repeat the mistakes of our past. We study history, because when we know better, we do better. We study history so that we can become critical thinkers, to be able to understand why the world is the way it is around us.

We must talk about how race shaped our nation, our laws, and our history, because if we do not, we cannot truly claim to be in search of a more perfect union. By removing the parts of history we teach that we find unpleasant or uncomfortable, we are erasing history. Our history.


Written by Dr. Jeni Ward Bolander. Dr. Bolander is a high school teacher and adjunct professor from Lexington. She is a founding member of KY120 United AFT. And, she carries a pocket Constitution on her at all times.

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