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Teach Illinois children the complete history of Black Americans, says Evanston's Meleika Gardner

Evanston resident and activist Meleika Gardner and a group of local Black leaders yesterday called for Illinoisans to support Gardners amendment to a bill that would mandate Illinois schools to teach Black history starting before enslavement.

Gardner's amendment to HB4954, which passed out of committee 14-7 in February and was slated to go to a vote by the full House of Representatives in mid-March, was stalled when Covid-19 brought the country, and the state, to a screeching halt.

Ironically, support for the amended bill, sponsored by State Rep. LaShawn K. Ford, (D, 8th), has gained momentum in the meantime, as the disproportionate effects of Covid-19 on Black Americans and the recent police murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks have catapulted racial justice to the top of many Americans' minds.

The bill also includes an amendment by Rep. Ford to deepen the teaching of the Civil Rights movement.

I talked to Meleika about her work back in March, and about her drive to teach students about Black American history before slave ships brought Africans to American shores.

“I believe it will enrich lives, save lives, help close the academic opportunity gap, and help to resolve race relations,” Gardner told me then. “It's important that all children of all cultural backgrounds are taught the correct information. To date, the only part that's taught is Black people starting out in shackles and chains."

Gardner, whose father was gunned down as a young man and whose nephew was shot and killed in Chicago two years ago told me, "I have lost friends to gun violence. I asked God, ‘Why are we killing each other?’ I believe in my heart that the answer is a lack of self-worth and self-knowledge due to systemic and institutional racism. If a young Black man does not see his own value, it is nothing for him to pick up a gun to kill someone who looks like him, because he hates himself. If he knew where he came from, how powerful his history is, his potential, I believe he wouldn't have a desire to kill his own community."

Read my complete interview with Meleika Gardner here.

At yesterday's new conference, speakers including incoming District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton, Rev. Dr. Michael Nabors, president of NAACP Evanston North Shore, fifth-generation Evanston resident and diversity consultant Gilo Kwesi Cornell Logan, Fifth Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, arts administrator and theater director Pemon Rami, and Revin Fellows, former athlete and co-founder of Books Over Balls, joined Gardner and Rep. Ford to express their support for the amendment and galvanize others to help ensure that it passes.

"The systems we adults have created have fallen on students," said Dr. Horton, who comes to D65 from his position as Chief of Schools for Jefferson County, Kentucky, and who grew up in Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes.

"Many students across this country have no idea that their ancestors were kings and queens, as well as educated citizens, or heard the retellings of their many contributions to civilization, not just to the continent of Africa, but across the world," he said. "Not only will Black students benefit from learning their true history, but all students will benefit to learn about the greatness that exists within the African American culture. This exposure has the potential to transform how our students see and interact with each other and directly combat racism."

Dr. Nabors, who is also Senior Pastor at Evanston's Second Baptist Church, said an expanded curriculum is long overdue.

"It's almost humiliating and embarrassing that in 2020 we are proposing a bill for the State of Illinois to teach the importance of Black history and African history to our young people," he said. "History is our greatest teacher, and to be denied an opportunity to know the reality of your history is to be denied the opportunity for you to flourish and grow and to reach the heights that you were intended to reach."

Dr. Logan said it took traveling to 23 countries to figure out who he was as a Black man in America.

"That's a shame," he said.

"I have a Masters in elementary education, a Doctorate in adult education, I taught elementary school, middle school, high school, university. At every single level, I've had students, Black students in particular, who had no idea who we are as a people. I've had white students, other students, have no idea who we are as Black people. Almost 100 years ago, Carter Godwin Woodson talked about the 'Miseducation of the Negro.' That does not only impact the Black person--it impacts us all. We've all been miseducated by the system. This bill needs to pass for the benefit of everyone. We need systemic change."

Ald. Robin Rue Simmons pointed to the work she's heading up in Evanston toward reparations.

"As we take community feedback on what repair looks like in Evanston, it's often education that is a key piece," she said.

"Imagine if, when, we were on the playground as little kids, we were playing with the knowledge that our foremothers and forefathers were royal kings and queens in a rich land instead of the perspective that we've seen -- our African ancestors being enslaved here. Imagine, if we knew ourselves, our history," she said.

"I'm hopeful that this bill passes. I think now is the time. Our nation, our state, our cities have been awakened to the terror, the oppression, and the discrimination that we all know is here. And unfortunate recent events have highlighted it."

Rep. Ford, who received his B.S. in Education from Loyola University and is a former history teacher and basketball coach for Chicago Public Schools, said that while he has passed a lot of bills, "getting American History could be the most important bill we can pass in Illinois." Taxpayers, Ford said pay a lot to go to college, to school. "For their tax dollars to be used to miseducate people is a crime," he said.

"We can look at what's happening when we walk in our neighborhoods, our street signs, building names, parks and public spaces; it's a replica of our history books. It's not a complete history. Yes, it is our history, but it doesn't tell the complete story. And what does that do for young black boys and girls? It talks away their pride. It makes them think that they're inferior. And what does that do for young white boys and girls? It gives them a sense of privilege. so we're going to fight to make sure we pass this bill."


Dear Evanston will keep you posted as the bill heads to a vote. In the meantime, contact your Illinois State Rep. and Senator and urge them to support and co-sponsor HB4954.

Read more about yesterday's news conference in The Evanston Patch.

Thanks to Dan Coyne for live-streaming the event. You can watch it here.

Photos: Meleika Gardner, Evanston Live TV; Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (D), 8th District


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