News & Commentary

DeSantis defends Florida’s curriculum on slavery; draws Black, Catholic criticism  

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis giving a speech

(OSV News) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican seeking his party’s presidential nomination in 2024, faced criticism after defending a controversial portion of Florida’s 2023 Social Studies curriculum suggesting “slaves developed skills” that could be used for their “personal benefit.”

According to a document from the Florida Department of Education, the 2023 Social Studies curriculum on “African American History” states “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Asked about that curriculum during a July 21 campaign stop in Salt Lake City, DeSantis replied, “They’re probably going to show that some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life.”

“You should talk to (the Florida Department of Education) about it; I mean, I didn’t do it, I wasn’t involved in it,” he said.

A statement from that department was posted on Twitter July 20, attributed to William Allen and Frances Presley Rice, members of Florida’s African American History Standards Workgroup, and said, “The intent of this particular benchmark clarification is to show that some slaves developed highly specialized trades from which they benefitted. This is factual and well documented.”

Civil rights leaders and educators have condemned that phrasing in the document, arguing that slavery was not a vocational training program, but a stain on American history and a violation of human rights.

The Florida Education Association, a teachers’ union representing about 150,000 teachers in the state, wrote on Twitter that “Florida’s students — America’s students — deserve a complete, accurate account of our country’s history. Our future depends on it.”

Shannen Dee Williams, associate professor of history at the University of Dayton, Ohio, and author of “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle,” told OSV News that “having an accurate and critical understanding of the past is the cornerstone of a quality education.”

“It is also an essential component of informed and compassionate citizenship in a democratic society,” said Williams, who is also a Black Catholic. “Historians of the African American experience have always understood that the greatest weapon of white supremacy has never been violence, but rather the ability to erase the history of its violence and its victims.”

Florida’s 2023 Social Studies curriculum on African American history, Williams argued “was not crafted by credentialed or expert historians in the field,” and comes after other areas of concern such as “the state’s recent decision allow the use of K-12 lessons from the unaccredited PragerU,” which she said has a history of “downplaying systemic racism and promoting anti-immigrant theories.” Williams said these are not new tactics “of domination and suppression.”

“Instead, it is part of a long and violent history of anti-intellectual and anti-democratic historical revision and misrepresentation used by enslavers, segregationists, and other beneficiaries of the social, political, and economic spoils of slavery and white supremacy to maintain inequality and inequity in this nation,” she said.

Omékongo Dibinga, a senior professorial lecturer at American University in Washington who spoke at the July 20-23 National Black Catholic Congress, told OSV News that “the first problem with that line is that they assumed that African people didn’t already have skills when they got here. That’s why they were enslaved in the first place, because they have the skills.”

“You cannot talk about something that comes as a benefit in any way, shape or form, if it came at the expense of your freedom — period, bottom line,” Dibinga said.

Dibinga said the Florida curriculum in full is also missing crucial historical context about the pre-colonial history of the African continent and its people.

“When you go deeper into the curriculum, you also find that they basically look at Africa only in this relationship to Europe,” he said. “So you’re basically treating people as if they were nothing until Europeans came in and enslaved them. There’s no mention of African kingdoms. There’s no mention of pre-colonial, pre-slavery Africa.”

Among the African kingdoms was the Kingdom of Kongo whose King Nzinga a Nkuwu was baptized in 1491, and encouraged the spread of Catholic faith reflective of their culture. Within a few decades the kingdom came under heavy pressure from Portgual to participate in the slave trade. Kongo’s Black Catholics also launched the 1739 Stono Rebellion, one of the most significant slave revolts in the American colonies, on Sept. 9, following the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Dibinga called DeSantis’ defense of the curriculum “a complete misfire for the general election.”

“There are a lot of people within the Republican Party who, first of all, need to be more vocal about this, who also have a problem with it,” he said. “I mean, there was actually a study of Republican college students who said that they want to have the full history taught, they want to learn everything.”

Dibinga pointed to a recent Axios survey which found that nearly half (46%) of college Republicans support public schools teaching about institutional racism.

Williams said U.S. Catholics of all backgrounds should grapple with the legacy of slavery as “the Catholic Church inaugurated African enslavement in the land area that became the United States.”

“And, it did so in St. Augustine, Florida, more than five decades before the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the English-controlled Virginia in 1619,” she said, adding, “We should also take in the cruel irony that the birthplace of U.S. and Catholic history — St. Augustine — is named after an original doctor of the Church, who was also African.”

Some of DeSantis’ primary rivals also criticized his argument.

Former GOP. Rep Will Hurd of Texas, the only Black Republican in the House from 2019 until 2021, wrote on Twitter, “Unfortunately, it has to be said — slavery wasn’t a jobs program that taught beneficial skills.”

“It was literally dehumanizing and subjugated people as property because they lacked any rights or freedoms,” Hurd wrote.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who like DeSantis is Catholic, issued a sharp rebuke of his GOP primary rival during an interview July 23 on CBS’ Face the Nation.

“You know, look, Gov. DeSantis started this fire with the bill that he signed, and now he doesn’t want to take responsibility for whatever is done in the aftermath of it,” Christie said. “And from listening and watching his comments, he’s obviously uncomfortable.”

He said, “‘I didn’t do it and I’m not involved in it’ are not the words of leadership.”

By Kate Scanlon | OSV News