In the end, Barbara Burke stood alone as the only member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School who voted for a mandatory black history class as a requirement for graduation.
After Burke’s motion failed by a lopsided 7-1 vote on Tuesday night, the board unanimously voted to approve an “Infusion Program” recommended by Superintendent Angela Hairston.
The vote handed a defeat to Hate Out of Winston, a group that has intensively lobbied for a mandatory black studies for the past 10 months, along with its ally, the Local Organizing Committee, which has been pushing for the curriculum change for more than three years. The vote was preceded by impassioned comments by at least 20 people in support of the measure. Instead, the school board voted to approve the superintendent’s recommendation to expand and strengthen a program of infusing black studies into the K-8 curriculum, which has been in place since the 1990s.
“For over three years, and going on four years now, we have heard from our community,” said Burke, a Democrat who represents District 1. “And we heard from them tonight. And we heard that they made a request for a mandatory African-American course. They did not ask for a recommendation. They did not ask for an option.
“They asked for a required, mandatory African-American course,” Burke continued, as applause broke out in the meeting room. “I support the seven recommendations that the superintendent has. But I want to be clear: This is not an either/or. This is not you choose one and the other will die. We can have both. I want to make it very clear. We already have infusion. What we have inserted is confusion.”
Malishai Woodbury, chair of the board and also a Democrat elected from District 1, argued against implementing a policy without the new superintendent’s backing.
“I would ask us as governing agents that we are prudent,” Woodbury said. “The superintendent has said to us: ‘Listen, I don’t have the budget for another mandatory course. I don’t know the data that would support it. So, as the leader of your district, I need you to allow me the time to figure out the data behind something that’s going to impact our children greatly.’ Because mandatory means that if a black kid doesn’t pass the course — God forbid — they will not graduate.
“As governing agents again, I would ask that our board listen to what our superintendent is suggesting to us,” Woodbury continued. “Which is why all nine of us raised our hands to support her to come and lead this school district. And sometimes we will not all agree with her. I get that. But if we don’t let her do her job, then the first African-American superintendent — easy come, easy go.”
Andrea Bramer, a Democrat elected at large, attempted to mollify the crowd.
“She is not killing this idea for all time,” Bramer said. “This is asking for time to get the data together.”
Several people in the audience interrupted: “How much time?”
Elisabeth Motsinger, another Democrat elected at large, made the substitute motion, which received unanimous support, including from Burke.
“My motion is that we as a board unanimously supported our superintendent, chose her, and that the very first major policy decision she has come up with is the one that was presented to us in curriculum committee,” Motsinger said. “It does do some continuation, and in addition adds some very new and critically important components.”
Hairston said the Infusion Program already incorporates African-American studies into the K-8 curriculum, but under her recommendations Latin American and Native American studies will also be incorporated into the curriculum. African-American studies, Latin American studies and Native American studies will be offered as an elective at all high school regardless of the number of students who are interested. And all three courses will be offered for a full credit instead of a half-credit. Her recommendations also include creating an African-American studies advisory committee that would meet twice a year to review standards and enrollment in elective courses.
Woodbury said in an interview after the vote that the advisory committee could potentially develop a recommendation for a mandatory black studies course, with cost estimates and other supporting data.
But Burke indicated that the issue is dead — at least for the time being.
“It would have to come from the community,” she said. “Because if it comes from me, it will fail. You see what happened. I won’t be able to convince the board to do otherwise.”
After the meeting, Destiny Blackwell said Hate Out of Winston will keep fighting for the class.
“When it came up for discussion to talk about mandatory African-American studies, they didn’t talk about mandatory African-American studies,” she said. “It was a charade. The superintendent is suggesting to do what already exists. It’s like Siri giving you directors. They really displayed that they are not listening to us.”
Burke, who chairs the curriculum committee, announced from the dais in June that the committee would consider a recommendation for a mandatory black studies course in October, noting that is the month when the committee customarily considers additions to the curriculum. But during the meeting, Burke appeared surprised when Hairston did not present information on a mandatory black studies course, but instead offered recommendations for the infusion program. At that meeting, Burke made a motion to recommend a mandatory black studies course. Deanna Kaplan, a Democrat elected at large, and Leah Crowley, a Republican elected from District 2, voted in support of the recommendation, they said, so that the matter could be decided by the full board.
On Tuesday, when the matter came before the full board, again staff did not submit any materials to support the item on the agenda for action. Burke asked for an explanation.
“There’s not any information associated with the mandatory black history course because her recommendation was for the infusion program, which is what she has preparation to provide us the information,” Woodbury responded. “There’s no information because the superintendent doesn’t have any information to support the African-American history course.”
Speakers during the public comments section of the meeting, from teachers, alumni, clergy and other community members, overwhelmingly favored a mandatory black studies course, although some argued that both that and infusion from kindergarten through 12th grade were essential. Those who spoke in support of mandatory black studies included Winston-Salem City Council member DD Adams and Jefferson Middle School teacher Jenny Marshall, who were rivals for the Democratic nomination in the 5th Congressional District race a year ago.
Those arguing for both mandatory black studies and infusion included Kellie Easton, who read a statement on behalf of the Action 4 Equity Coalition.
“The infusion model is currently optional for public schools in Forsyth County,” Easton said, reading from the statement. “We believe it needs to be made mandatory for all schools. While the organization recognizes the desire of our members of our community for a mandatory class in African-American history as a graduation requirement at the high school level, we are clear that such an approach to teaching African-American history absent a K-12 infusion model falls short of building a critical background and knowledge base for students. A K-12 understanding of African-American history is required for success in matriculation through a high-stakes course which has a graduation requirement attached.”
The Rev. Alvin Carlisle, president of the Winston-Salem NAACP, was among those whose comments leaned in the direction of the superintendent’s alternate proposal.
“I want to thank you all for hiring someone who has a proven track record of expanding student achievement, who has a proven track record of expanding equity in education,” he said. “I ask you to allow her to do the job you hired her to do. I celebrate her recommendation to move black history as well as other ethnic study courses from a half credit to a full credit. I celebrate the reality that she wants to put these courses in every single high school in our district. I ask you to consider her recommendations that were excluded in the substitute motion on the curriculum meeting on this past week, and that you would revisit those recommendations to cause those infusion programs to have accountability measures, that all of our children, from kindergarten through 12th grade see themselves in their studies.”
But the comments of Effrainguan Muhammad from the Local Organizing Committee were more representative of the vast majority of speakers.
“We have a president who has referred to African countries as S-hole countries — why black history?” he said. “That same president has referred to black athletes as SOBs — why black history? Once again, that same black president referred to his impeachment as a ‘lynching’ — why black history? See, there’s a direct link between the thinking in the White House and the Winston-Salem school system and Winston-Salem the city itself. It was just last year that several white students at Reagan High School made a viral video on Snapchat yelling the words ‘n***er, n***er, n***er’ — why black history? Right on this board, one of your former colleagues who you all had lunch with, attended conferences with, voted with and exchanged texts with referred to a black man with a PhD as ‘mush mouth’ Why a mandatory black history class? For the same reason despite having the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments infused into the constitution, we still need a Voting Rights Act decades later making it mandatory.”
Benjamin Spencer, a young, white man who graduated from Reagan, said he also supports a mandatory black history course.
“I can attest to a lot of the previous public commenter’s comments in terms of the issues that have plagued Reagan,” he said. “I saw it on a day-in-day-out basis, showing the necessity of why we need an African-American history course. To not have one is a great disservice. I was unfortunately with a bunch of students who did not understand the context of Confederate memorials, and how it is not a memorial per se; it is a symbol of racist heritage.”
On the other side of the city at Winston-Salem State University, during a 50th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Winston-Salem Black Panther Party earlier in the day, Larry Medley explained why he dropped out of high school in High Point and moved to Winston-Salem to join the party. Medley recounted that the principal at High Point Central High School called the police on him and four other students for demanding a black history class. They were suspended and told they couldn’t come back unless they received a psychiatric evaluation.
“From what we had learned, it was also our right to learn about our history,” he said. “So we tried to talk the principal into establishing some kind of course or class so we wouldn’t have to be without our history as black people.”