In Orlando, Vice President Harris slams DeSantis’ offer to discuss slavery standards
Orlando Sentinel | By Steven Lemongello and Skyler Swisher | August 1, 2023
Speaking in Orlando, Vice President Kamala Harris rejected Gov. DeSantis’ invitation to discuss and “set the record straight” about Florida’s controversial teaching standards on slavery.
“There is no roundtable, no lecture, no invitation we will accept to debate an undeniable fact: There were no redeeming qualities of slavery,” she said Tuesday.
The new state Black history standards, approved at a meeting in Orlando last month, include a required instruction on “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
They have caused a political uproar for DeSantis, who’s suffered blowback from not only Harris and Democrats but also civil rights groups and Black Republicans.
“They insult us in an attempt to gaslight us in an attempt to divide and distract our nation with unnecessary debates,” Harris told a gathering of the African Methodist Episcopal Women’s Missionary Society at the Orange County Convention Center. “And now, they attempt to legitimize these unnecessary debates with a proposal that most recently came in of a politically motivated roundtable.”
Her rebuke comes after DeSantis on Monday sent a letter to the vice president “officially inviting you back down to Florida to discuss our African American History standards.”
“Over the past several weeks, the Biden Administration has repeatedly disparaged our state and misinformed Americans about our education system,” DeSantis wrote in the letter that he initially shared with Fox News.
“One would think the White House would applaud such boldness in teaching the unique and important story of African American History,” he wrote. “But you have instead attempted to score cheap political points.”
In a visit to Jacksonville last month, Harris didn’t mention DeSantis but slammed “extreme so-called leaders” with “a national agenda … to replace history with lies.”
“How is it that anyone could suggest that in the midst of these atrocities, there was any benefit to being subjected to this level of dehumanization?” Harris said then.
On Tuesday in Orlando, Harris clearly was not backing down in her criticisms.
“We will not stop calling out and fighting back against extremist, so-called leaders who try to prevent our children from learning our true and full history,” she said.
Before Harris spoke, Cynthia Taylor, a convention attendee from Philadelphia, said she had reservations about visiting Florida but she was excited to hear from the vice president.
“Florida is trying to change the history of Black Americans and what happens in the schools,” said Taylor, international treasurer of the AME Church’s International Health Commission. “She is an ever-present reminder of what we can achieve as a people, as women and as Americans.”
Vice President Kamala Harris arrives at Orlando International Airport ahead of attending the 20th Quadrennial Convention of the Women’s Missionary Society of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. The gathering at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando is hosting 3,000 delegates from 39 countries. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)
Organizers couldn’t move this year’s event out of Florida without incurring a large financial loss, she said.
Taylor said she and other attendees are not spending money outside the convention center, other than Disney World, as an act of protest against DeSantis, similar to the economic boycotts of the Civil Rights Era in the South.
“We have to take a stand here to make sure that our voices are heard all the way across the United States,” Taylor said. “If we don’t stop it now, then all 50 states are going to do this, and we have worked too hard for too long to be a voice that is heard.”
The controversy over the standards, which also includes instruction on the 1920 Ocoee and 1923 Rosewood massacres in Florida must include acts of violence both “against and by African Americans,” has dogged DeSantis, a Republican candidate for president, for weeks.
Last week, Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation’s oldest historically Black fraternity, canceled its 2025 convention in Orlando because of a “hostile” political environment, specifically citing the history standards.
DeSantis initially attempted to distance himself from the requirements at a press conference in Utah last month, saying reporters should ask the state Department of Education about the standards. “I didn’t do it. I wasn’t involved in it. … These were scholars who put that together. It was not anything that was done politically.”
But at the same time, he said the standards are “probably going to show some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life.”
Two members of the workgroup that put together the standards released a statement listing examples of slaves benefitting from developing skills, but many of the examples they listed were likely born free or were children at emancipation.
The standards have also faced blowback from prominent Black Republicans, including one of DeSantis’ rivals for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said there was “no silver lining … in slavery.”
“What slavery was really about was separating families, about mutilating humans and even raping their wives,” Scott said. “It was just devastating. So I would hope that every person in our country — and certainly running for president — would appreciate that.”
U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, was one of several Black Republican Congress members to criticize the standards, including U.S. Reps. John James, R-Mich., and Wesley Hunt, R-Texas.
DeSantis’ campaign staff responded to Donalds’ call for “adjustments” to the standards, most of which he supported, by comparing her to Harris.
Harris of late has taken on an aggressive role for the White House as she and Biden gear up for a reelection bid.
In addition to the Jacksonville trip, Harris went to Nashville in April to slam the expulsion of three Democratic state lawmakers who protested gun violence at the Tennessee state Capitol.