A push to make Black history classes a college graduation requirement in FL is mostly talk but no action

American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery. Credit: William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images

Amid ongoing racial tensions over the killing of George Floyd and other racial injustices, questions have been raised about whether colleges and universities should mandate courses on African American history or racism that would bring more awareness and inclusiveness of Black culture.

The idea would be that such classes would be required for college students to graduate.

But so far, there appears to be no formal action on that front  — despite petition drives, protests, virtual meetings and conversations surrounding issues affecting people of color.

The Florida Phoenix has found that several colleges and universities don’t require that type of instruction for graduation, though African American courses do exist in the curriculum.

Right now, Florida law requires African American history to be taught at K-12 public schools, though some schools may not be teaching it, as previously reported by the Phoenix.

“I don’t know how you’d teach a class in racism but certainly offering a Black history class (that would be required), I don’t have any issue with that,” said State Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Democrat representing part of Duval County. Gibson, who is Black, is the Democratic Leader in the Florida Senate.

At state higher education institutions, particularly where there are fewer Black students compared to white, students aren’t required to learn about African American history, and many may not be aware of those courses offered.

At Florida A&M University, all undergraduate students must fulfill general education requirements including completing an introduction to African American history class, said David Jackson, Jr., a history professor and dean of FAMU’s School of Graduate Studies and Research.

“That’s been going on at FAMU for probably about 30 years now; it’s been a part of the fabric of the university,” Jackson said in a phone interview with the Florida Phoenix.

FAMU, in Tallahassee, is one of the top historically Black college and universities (HBCUs) in the nation, according to U.S. News and World Report’s “2020 Best Colleges” rankings.

“I think that African American history is at the center of American history and a person can’t fully appreciate American history without understanding (how) African Americans influenced the development of this nation,” Jackson said.

A petition gets going

Leila Dugalic started a petition to urge Florida State University to establish a mandatory “course relating to race and ethnicity, racism and/or Black history in the United States,” as a graduation requirement for all students regardless of their major.

According to a Tallahassee Democrat report, Dugalic graduated from FSU in 2018 and is a third-year law student at New England Law Boston.

FSU has not yet responded to a request for comment from the Florida Phoenix regarding the petition.

“Not only would this policy increase education and understanding among the FSU student body on the issues that Black Americans face in the United States every single day, but it would be an opportunity for the university to act as a role model for the community,” the petition says. The effort has received more than 8,000 signatures.

Dugalic noted that those type of courses “centered around sensitive subjects” may provoke tough class discussions and disagreements among students but they are necessary.

The Department of History at FSU offers a class titled “The African American Experience in the United States” (AMH 1091), examining “the experience of African-Americans in the United States and their role in shaping the nation’s history.”

And the College of Criminology & Criminal Justice offers a course called “The Social Reality of Black Males” (CCJ 3673), which “examines different viewpoints and non-reconciled positions about the current economic, social and political status of Black males in America.”

African American courses exist but often are optional

The University of South Florida, in Tampa, “offers dozens of classes that include a deep examination of issues on racism” and plans to unveil a new course called “COVID-19 and the Black Diaspora,” spokesperson Althea Paul said in an email to the Phoenix.

Paul said that the new course will investigate the “disproportionate health impact of COVID-19 on the black community.”

“All undergraduate students are required to choose from courses in the area of Human and Cultural Diversity as part of our enhanced general education requirement,” Paul said. “There are plans underway to raise awareness about these existing courses.”

According to USF’s “Enhanced General Education” curriculum, the only course satisfying the area of Human and Cultural Diversity that solely covers African American related topics is the “Introduction to the Black Experience” (AFA 2000) class.

The course is described as “fundamental perspectives on the nature and significance of the Black Experience in Africa and black communities in the Americas.”

The University of Central Florida, in Orlando, hosted a virtual conversation about race and unity in early June, where students, faculty and staff shared their thoughts and experiences with university officials.

“At UCF, we are actively listening to the community about issues of racism, diversity and inclusion, and how we can improve our campus experience,” spokeswoman Rachel Williams said in an email to the Phoenix.

“There will be more conversations like this moving forward, and they will help shape our ongoing work in ensuring every student, faculty and staff member feels supported while at UCF,” she said.

The virtual discussion on racism came after the university announced an investigation into complaints about Charles Negy, a psychology professor at UCF whose Twitter posts were condemned as racist.

“We have been receiving complaints alleging bias and unfair treatment in Dr. Negy’s classroom,” several university officials including president, Alexander N. Cartwright, said in a letter to the campus community.

“Many of Associate Professor Charles Negy’s online comments run completely counter to our university’s core values of diversity and inclusion, and we condemn them in the strongest terms,” the letter said.

College coaches weigh in

Even college coaches across the nation are calling for required instruction on African American history or related courses for all students.

A new committee formed by the National Association of Basketball Coaches, a large nationwide professional association of basketball coaches, announced last week that it plans to tackle racial issues affecting people of color not just within intercollegiate sports but “the society at large, and to push for greater awareness, empathy, understanding and unity.”

The committee on Racial Reconciliation recommended that “all high school and four-year college students would be required to complete at least one course on African-American History or a related topic on the African-American experience in order to earn a diploma.”

According to the announcement, the NABC Committee on Racial Reconciliation was created after the death of George Floyd and other recent racial incidents in the country.

Jackson, at FAMU, said, “I think African Americans have forced America to live up to its ideals in many respects…I think it’s critical to learn about African American history.”