Salt Lake City students say they want to learn more about Black history

Students discuss their experiences in local schools and ways things could improve in a panel moderated by Rep. Sandra Hollins.

(Screenshot via Zoom) Rep. Sandra Hollins moderates a panel over Zoom about Black history in Utah schools on Thursday, April 15, 2021. High school students shared their thoughts on what they have been taught and what they wish they had learned.

Teach students about Black history, and not just as it pertains to tragedy.

That was the takeaway of a panel called “Black History is Utah History” hosted by the Salt Lake City Library on Thursday evening. Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, moderated the panel with three high school students and Salt Lake City School District Board member Mohamed Baayd.

“Black history is American history,” said Hollins.

She said she learned a lot about Black history while in school in New Orleans, but was surprised to find that her children learned less about Black history as they grew up in Utah. She said they mostly learned about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Hollins said King and Parks are wonderful people, but Black history is “richer” than just two individuals.

“Black history shouldn’t be put in its own little box and just saved for a few lessons here and there, but rather (should be taught) as (part of) the larger curriculum,” said Sophie Ayers-Harris, a junior at Rowland Hall.

She said she specifically wishes she knew more about Black history in Utah.

Diya Oommen, a freshman at West High, said she hasn’t learned about historical events like the Tulsa Race Massacre or Loving v. Virginia in school. She said she doesn’t think it’s fair that students in different places are receiving unequal education on U.S. history.

Amira Baayd, a sophomore at East High, said her parents have taught her about Black history, but that not everyone has families that help them learn in the same way. She said this results in many people not understanding how the United States was shaped. She said the country was built on the backs of African American people.

But the students said they don’t just want to learn about slavery and racism.

Baayd said being exposed to books about strong, Black women would have made her more confident as a Black girl growing up in America.

When asked what historical figures they wish they had learned about in school, Baayd mentioned poets Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou. She said she did a project about the Harlem Renaissance in sixth grade that taught her that Black history isn’t just about slavery: It is beautiful, too.

Ayers-Harris said she would like to see more celebration of Black culture and history.

She said she wishes she had learned about Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton and activist Malcolm X. She said they differed from King’s nonviolent approach in the struggle for civil rights, but that it is important to understand what they stood for, too.

Salt Lake City School District Board member Mohamed Baayd said he thinks the district will change when incoming Superintendent Timothy Gadson begins his job in July. Baayd said Gadson, who will be the first Black superintendent in the district, is committed to equity. Baayd said Gadson will be a “breath of fresh air” in the district and will bring with him new ideas and experiences.

“The old ways of doing things are out the door,” he said. “We live in the new, inclusive environment.”

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