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Florida twists history to sanitize slavery


Written by: Georgia Tech emeritus professor Gregory Nobles.

As we look for news stories to bring to you, we came across an opinion piece that we wanted to share. It’s empowering to see a piece that addresses the importance of historical accuracy and challenges attempts to rewrite history in a way that distorts the reality of past events. Gregory Nobles’ opinion piece, published in the AJC, thoughtfully critiques the State of Florida’s recent endeavor to present a skewed narrative about the impact of slavery on Black individuals.

Nobles, a Professor Emeritus at Georgia Tech and author of “The Education of Betsey Stockton: An Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom,” raises valid concerns about the implications of this revisionist approach. By suggesting that Black people benefited from slavery by acquiring useful skills, Florida’s new standard ignores the brutal and dehumanizing nature of slavery. Such attempts to whitewash history undermine a complete understanding of the suffering, oppression, and systemic racism that characterized this period.

Nobles’ assertion that this approach ignores the “ugliness and inhumanity of slavery” is a poignant reminder that history must be presented accurately, acknowledging the pain and trauma inflicted upon marginalized communities. By sharing Nobles’ commentary, you contribute to the preservation of historical truth and advocate for a more nuanced understanding of our past.

Here is Professor Nobles in his own words…

These are dark days for history in the Sunshine State. The Florida Department of Education’s African American History Standards Workgroup has recently put forth curriculum guidelines that include one truly bizarre benchmark: “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Even with the qualifier “in some instances,” the guideline implies that enslaved labor could be essentially a form of temporary apprenticeship, a useful learning process leading to individual achievement. That’s quite a duplicitous spin on the teaching of American slavery. 

But it’s “factual and well documented,” the workgroup asserts. The alleged documentation provides a list of 16 enslaved people — blacksmiths, shoemakers, fishing and shipping industry workers, tailors and teachers — who “took advantage of whatever circumstances they were in to benefit themselves and the community of African descendants.” It’s a very short list from a very long history, and short as it is, the individual examples make for dubious documentation. 

I happen to have written a recent book about one of the two teachers on the list, Betsey Stockton (1798-1865), and I was stunned to find her trotted out for this sort of patronizing display. Yes, beginning in the time of her enslavement, she became a self-educated, even intellectually exceptional woman. And yes, after she gained her emancipation, she became a celebrated and committed teacher, first as a missionary in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaiian Islands), then as the first teacher in the first Black infant school in Philadelphia, and finally, for over three decades, as the sole teacher in the sole public school for Black children in Princeton, New Jersey. But she did that in spite of her enslavement, not because of it. 

Soon after being born into slavery in Princeton, she was given to the household of the Rev. Ashbel Green, a prominent Presbyterian pastor in Philadelphia and, from 1812 to 1822, the president of Princeton (then called the College of New Jersey). Green later wrote that she educated herself “without ever going to school at all,” and he was right about that: He certainly didn’t send her. But working in Green’s household gave her access to his substantial collection of books and she apparently devoured them. By the time she was in her late teens, Green acknowledged that she “has a real taste for literature … (and) composes in English, in a manner very uncommon for one of her standing in society.” 

Her standing in society, of course, was always defined by her race and gender. Even as a free woman of color, she could never ignore or escape the pervasive racism of American society, in the North as well as the South, and particularly in Princeton, at a time when the College of New Jersey actively recruited students from below the Mason-Dixon Line. 

Beneath the genteel veneer of this small college town simmered an ugly underside of anti-Black prejudice, at times even outright violence. Being the one Black teacher in such a town could never be easy, but she worked at it day after day, year after year, until the day she died. Given her circumstances, Betsey Stockton stands as a success, an imposing pillar of the Black community in Princeton, where she is still remembered and revered. But to portray her success as an extension, much less a benefit, of her enslavement is to tear her out of her historical context, to embrace a benign-seeming view of the vicious institution that left its mark on her from birth, as it did so many other Black people of her era. 

And yes, like Betsey Stockton, other people born into slavery did use their initiative to make their own mark on society. They were human beings, after all, with intellect and imagination, not mindless automatons merely doing rote labor. But whatever they achieved pays credit to their own effort, not to their enslavement. 

To suggest, as the Florida guidelines do, that slavery could have been a springboard to success is a cynical attempt to emphasize particular individuals to sanitize a pernicious institution. 

“We proudly stand behind these African American History Standards,” the Florida panel concludes, but they’re really standing behind a historical smokescreen. The people of Florida — and all of us — need to see through it. 

Gregory Nobles is professor emeritus at Georgia Tech and author of “The Education of Betsey Stockton: An Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom.”


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