PROVIDENCE, RI – In celebration of Black History Month, U.S. Senator Jack Reed today joined the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society (RIBHS) and Rhode Island College (RIC) for a community conversation on the importance of teaching Black history in our schools.

“Black history is so central to the formation of our nation and it needs to be taught to students all throughout the year,” said Senator Reed.  “And Black history goes far beyond slavery and civil rights -- it is so central to our shared American heritage and the very fabric of who we are as Americans.  There are so many brilliant Black Americans who’ve been agents of change, titans in their fields, trailblazers, and shapers of American culture.  They deserve to be recognized and celebrated all throughout the year.”

The community conversation was moderated by RIBHS executive director Theresa “Soni” Guzman Stokes and featured panelists: Keith Stokes, a prominent historian and business leader; Dr. Christopher West, who was appointed in September as the inaugural Curator for the Black Diaspora at Brown University’s John Hay Library; RIC’s Dr. Sherri Cummings, who serves jointly as assistant professor of history and Africana studies and as historian and director of community engagement for RIBHS; and RIC student-teacher, Ashanti Dez’Amore.

During the forum, Reed noted that The Black Heritage Society is at the forefront of preserving and sharing the stories of our history that have too often been left out.  And Rhode Island College is the gateway to postsecondary education for many first-generation college students in Rhode Island: “It is the place that prepares most of our public school teachers.  It is the perfect place for this conversation,” said Senator Reed, who secured a $500,000 federal earmark for RIBHS last year to help preserve critical documents relating to the history of African heritage in Rhode Island. 

Over the past few years, extremist lawmakers in some states have sought to find ways for politicians to intervene in education, including the banning and censorship of books in school libraries and restricting what can or can’t be taught in the classroom. 

During the discussion, Senator Reed called for history to be taught factually and transparently, and encouraged people to have open minds and strive to read books with a variety of critical, fact-based viewpoints and perspectives.  He said the evils of slavery and Jim Crow and their effects today are uncomfortable topics for some but even great democracies with lofty principles can fail to live up to its noble values.

“Today, there are forces in our society and our politics that seek to enhance their power by suggesting we forget, bury, and deny this history,” said Reed.  “It is up to all of us to reject such cynicism and ignorance. We need to remember.  And if we want to have a brighter future, we need to know and understand what really happened in the past, even when that requires us to confront painful truths.  Education is the cornerstone of our democracy, and teaching students a well-rounded curriculum that properly gives Black Americans their due and contextualizes their incredible contributions, from the founding of this nation onward, is essential to our future.”

“Ensuring that public school students have the opportunity to learn about their history and the impact of people with African heritage allows them to see themselves reflected in that history and therefore, in the places that they live,” said Dr. Sherri Cummings.

“African heritage history is American history. The more we learn and understand the lives of these men, women, and families, and their perseverance, the better we can understand our history today and in the future. Black history is not slavery, we teach that all wrong. It’s upside down,” said Keith Stokes. “Black history is how African heritage ancestors survived and thrived despite slavery. Here in Rhode Island, we have significant primary and secondary documentation, as deep as any state in the country.”

“My hope is that we can educate more of this super vast history and it’s a shame that it is limited to just three or four headlines. I hope we become more inclusive and we don’t shy away from these conversations,” said Ashanti Dez’Amore. “Conversations are an amazing tool to educate. And even when a conservation gets hard, having the ability to be mature enough to stay.”