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Why It’s So Hard for Schools to Teach About Slavery

One group of Texas educators recently suggested that slavery be introduced to second graders as “involuntary relocation.”


The Texas Board of Education received national attention this summer when a group of eductors proposed a monumental change to the state’s second-grade social studies curriculum: introducing slavery as “involuntary relocation.”  

The board rejected the proposal, but the incident is only the latest controversy surrounding how slavery is taught in American schools. Classes have held mock slave auctions where Black students have been “sold” by their white classmates. In New York, a white teacher told his mostly Black students to pick cotton during a lesson about slavery. And in Texas, a teacher told her eighth-grade students to list pros and cons of slavery on a worksheet titled, “The Lives of Slaves: A Balanced View.”

School systems across the country are grappling with how to teach slavery effectively – and often floundering. Without a robust education about slavery and its legacy in the country, systemic racism will continue to flourish and deepen racial divisions.

“There’s an issue in terms of how we see the history of this country, and how comfortable folks are with sort of creating an opportunity for critiquing this country, especially when it comes to race,” said Raphael Rogers, a professor of education at Clark University in Massachusetts. 

The white-washing of slavery in textbooks dates back to the post-Civil War era, when The United Daughters of the Confederacy advocated for lessons that portrayed of slavery as a largely benevolent institution. The vestige of that effort lives on in some textbooks today, even in Northern classrooms. A group of Massachusetts parents were in an uproar in 2014 after discovering a fifth-grade textbook downplayed slavery, stating that some plantation owners “took pride in being fair and kind to their slaves.” 

Recently, dozens of states have passed legislation that either limits or expands how race is talked about in the classroom. Lawmakers in at least 36 states have introduced bills to restrict education on systemic racism, racial bias, and other related topics. Seventeen states have proposed legislation that would expand the curriculum on this material, such as providing anti-racial bias training and adding lessons about prominent  Black or Asian American figures, according to Chalkbeat. In some cases, both types of bills have been introduced in the same statehouses.

“People are trying to control, impact and influence young minds in terms of how they see the world,” Rogers said. “I think this is a part of it.” 

Rogers, author of Representation of Slavery in Children’s Picture Books: Teaching and Learning About Slavery in K-12 Classrooms, says it can be daunting to figure out what to teach about slavery at each grade level. His research introduced him to children’s books that were able to explain slavery in a thoughtful manner. 

“You don’t have to be graphic to get students to recognize that some people were enslaved,” he said. “ I actually think young people – elementary school students –  have the capacity to recognize those basic truths about slavery: a harsh institution that was problematic for how it treated certain folks.” 

For Rogers, that can be enough of a lesson for kindergarten through third grade students. The next two grades — fourth and fifth — can be an opportunity to explore the complexities around slavery and have more uncomfortable conversations about it. 

Most state curricula don’t introduce the nation’s history of slavery at all until the fourth or fifth grade.

Ian Rowe, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a charter school advocate, said he “would be very hesitant to do any kind of deep dive into slavery in second grade, when we are just trying to get kids to develop basic reading skills, time on task, social emotional development.” 

While Rowe said he could see a need for more coverage of slavery in schools, he is most concerned with teachers portraying “a fully accurate story that neither sanitizes American history, so you don’t use words like slavery or involuntary relocation, but you don’t want to cherry pick to make it seem like everything was negative about the country and we haven’t evolved since then.” 

Rowe was  a stalwart opponent of the 1619 Project, an initiative from The New York Times that sought to teach more Americans about the legacy of slavery in the U.S. Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who developed the project, penned a children’s picture book that chronicled the history of slavery in the country.

Others besides Rowe felt differently: the 1619 Project received a Pulitzer Prize in 2020. The Pulitizer Center, the 1619 Project’s official education partner, helped develop curricula based on the journalistic work, which  was used for history lessons in some classrooms . 

It’s clear that some change is needed: The education that students, receive about slavery is paltry across all grade levels, according to the rubric set by Learning for Justice, an educational resource organization founded by the Southern Poverty Law Center. About two thirds of surveyed high school students did not know that it took a constitutional amendment to end slavery in the U.S., and just 8% of these students could identify slavery as one of the causes of the civil war, according to the analysis. 

And because each state’s board of education is responsible for setting curriculum standards, the level of education students receive about slavery wildly varies depending on where they live. Learning for Justice, in its analysis of 15 states, found numerous inconsistencies. 

In Alabama, the Emancipation Proclamation is taught in first grade, while the Civil War is taught in second, but slavery isn’t explored until the third or fourth grade. Although slavery isn’t mentioned until the fourth and fifth grade in California – excluding a mention of Harriet Tubman as an American hero in the second grade – both the fifth- and eighth-grade curriculum emphasizes the impact slavery has on the country today. 

Other states, like Florida, scored abysmally. This state received a poor score because, as the study states, “Nowhere do they attempt nuanced or deep coverage of slavery, which is particularly objectionable for a former slave state that also served, briefly, as a refuge for those who sought to escape from slavery.” 

Responses from teachers weren’t hopeful either. Even though more than 90% of polled teachers said they felt “comfortable” discussing slavery in classrooms, more than half – 58% – of the same teachers said they didn’t think their textbooks were adequate enough to teach students about slavery. Another 40% said their state overall didn’t provide enough resources to teach students about slavery. 

Lakeisha Patterson, a third grade teacher in the Deer Park school district, outside of Houston, said she doesn’t shy away from talking to her students about slavery when it comes up during social studies lessons. While she follows the state’s standards, she also will answer questions from her curious students. 

“I tend to hold back and wait for them to generate the conversation, and then that’s when we dive into honest, and academically appropriate, conversations around slavery,” she said. “It’s a finessing game.” 

Patterson teaches in a predominately white suburb, though most of her students are Hispanic. Even though slavery isn’t addressed in the official curriculum for her grade, she said, her students are required to write biographies on historical leaders. If a student writes about Ruby Bridges, for instance, questions around school integration come up.

“That’s the opportunity where I bring in honest, but uncomfortable and necessary, conversations, and slavery tends to be a part of it,” she said. 

In considering how students can learn about slavery, Patterson  thinks it is important that the lessons are geared towards each grade level. she thinks of her own 8-year-old daughter who constantly asks questions about the world.

 “Kids are sponges, right?” she said. “And this is the ample, ideal time that we have to pour accurate information to evoke thought-provoking questioning and asking the why. And children at this age? They want to know. They have questions.”