Critics cite historical inaccuracies in Florida’s defense of slave ‘job skills’ narrative
Miami Herald | By Jeffrey S. Solochek | July 24, 2023
The Florida Department of Education faced angry reaction from across the nation to new African American history standards suggesting some slaves benefited from skills they learned while enslaved.
Responding to mounting criticism, the department issued a statement Thursday offering 16 examples of historic figures it said fit that description. That they developed highly specialized abilities that helped them later in life is “factual and well documented,” the department stated.
Asked for more information on Friday, Florida’s Department of Education cited as references “The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution,” an 1895 book by William Cooper Nell, and “Encyclopedia of African American History 1619-1895,” a 2006 book edited by Paul Finkelman.
Alex Lanfranconi, a spokesperson for the department, said the experts stand behind their examples. Frances Presley Rice, a co-founder of the Yocum African American History Association and chairperson of the National Black Republican Association, provided the information to the department.
But other sources offer conflicting descriptions of the 16 historic figures, and critics came forward to attack the department’s claims. Among the problems: Historic sources show several of the 16 individuals were never even slaves.
The standards were approved Wednesday by the Board of Education, whose members were all appointed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The ensuing debate over the standards has been magnified by presidential politics.
Vice President Kamala Harris said extremists want to “replace history with lies” as she traveled to Florida on Friday to assail the standards.
From the campaign trail in Utah the same day, DeSantis accused Harris of attempting “to demagogue” and politicize history. He said he wasn’t involved in devising the Florida Board of Education’s standards but defended components instructing that enslaved people were taught skills that benefited them.
”They’re probably going to show that some of the folks that eventually parlayed being a blacksmith into doing things later in life. But the reality is: All of that is rooted in whatever is factual,” he said.
That defense drew yet more criticism. On Saturday American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and her colleague Leo Casey, a retired teacher from Brooklyn’s Clara Barton High School, issued a joint statement.
“This is disgusting and willfully ahistorical,” it said. “Normally publishing a grievously racist notion like ‘slaves benefited from slavery’ would be considered an embarrassment and quickly withdrawn. But not for Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, where doubling down on this noxious claim is seen as a badge of honor.”
Several critics argued that nearly half of the 16 historic figures highlighted by the state were never enslaved. Others, who did spend time in slavery, did not gain their skills from their servitude.
“They just threw out a bunch of names to make it seem like something good came of [slavery],” said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association teachers union. “The reality of it is, the facts don’t back up what they are saying.”
HISTORICAL SOURCES OFFER CONFLICTING ACCOUNTS
He mentioned Booker T. Washington, included on the state list as an educator. Washington was enslaved but did not gain his skills until after being freed at age 9. He worked in mines and as a houseboy before entering school, according to Tuskegee University, which he founded in 1881.
Georgetown University postdoctoral fellow Joshua Stein took issue with the state’s use of James Forten and Lewis Latimer as examples. The department said Latimer was a blacksmith born into slavery in 1848 and freed in 1852, and Forten was a shoemaker born into slavery in 1766 who escaped in 1784.
A museum dedicated to Latimer states he was born to two self-liberated formerly enslaved parents. Self-educated, he worked as an inventor, participating in the development of the telephone and incandescent lighting, among other inventions.
The Museum of the American Revolution describes Forten as a Black entrepreneur born to free parents. He served on privateer ships during the Revolutionary War and became a wealthy sailmaker.
Not only were they not slaves, Stein wrote on Twitter, their provided professions also were incorrect. “So … you’re wrong on both halves.”
▪ The department listed Henry Blair as a slave who became a blacksmith and an inventor. Biography.com and several other sites state there is no information indicating that Blair was enslaved. He invented a corn planter and a cotton planter, becoming the second Black person to earn a U.S. patent.
▪ The department referred to Paul Cuffe as a shoemaker and shipowner born into slavery and escaped to freedom in 1781. According to PaulCuffe.org, operated by the Westport Historical Society, Cuffe was born in 1759 to an emancipated slave. Having worked on whaling boats starting at age 14, he established a shipping business in Massachusetts.
▪ The statement mentioned John Chavis as a fisherman born into slavery, who later was known for his work in teaching. The North Carolina Museum of History states that Chavis was born into a free Black family in North Carolina, fought in the Revolutionary War and became an educator.
Genesis Robinson, political director for Equal Ground Florida, said he was disappointed but not surprised at the information. He said members of the public have been trying to point out problems with the standards since the state first introduced them for input and comment.
“They don’t care about an accurate accounting of Black history,” Robinson said.
State Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens, expressed dismay that the Department of Education would put forth questionable examples to advance what he considered a “disgusting” lesson that anyone might benefit from being enslaved.
“I want them to do that in other moments in history where people were oppressed and try to explain why this was to their benefit,” said Jones, who is Black. “It is so disingenuous.”