Wednesday, July 24, 2024

NHCS board member expresses discomfort with 1898 curricula, questions if it’s being taught factually

The 1898 Memorial at 3rd and Harnett streets. (Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands Williams)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Among a packed agenda, a social studies curricula update, which includes teaching on the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, was flagged by school board member Pete Wildeboer at Tuesday’s meeting. 

“I’m just concerned about our 1898 — I think we should teach factual history,” Wildeboer said. “Can you speak to that we are definitely teaching it factually?”

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The question was directed to Chief Academic Officer Patrice Faison, who presented an overview of the curricula and resources for 1898, along with 9/11 and Constitution Day to “highlight” them to the board.

This issue connects to a larger movement by conservatives targeting education on racial concepts. Wildeboer is one of two Republicans on the school board and is running for reelection in November. 

Faison explained to the board that students engage with 1898 curriculum for the first time in the third grade. Students participate in the Tar Heels Go Walking Field Trip, where they visit the 1898 Memorial at 3rd and Harnett streets and 1890s business leader John Taylor’s home at 4th and Market streets. The preserved building used to be the Wilmington armory, utilized as a staging area for the historical coup. 

The Wilmington Massacre took place on Nov. 10, 1898. White supremacists organized a mob of around 2,000 people to overthrow the legitimate biracial government in the city and terrorize Black residents. 

Although the official number is unknown, records estimate the mob killed anywhere from 60 to over 300 Black individuals in the Cape Fear region. They destroyed Black businesses and property, including the Black newspaper at the time, The Daily Record. It drove Black and white political opposition leaders out of the city, in effect displacing thousands of Black people. 

The event is the only successful coup to ever take place on American soil. For decades, it was described as a “race riot,” even still in one of the school-provided resources, suggesting Wilmington’s Black residents were instigators in the violence.

As provided by NHCS staff, school children are read the following paragraph: 

“A little over 120 years ago in 1898, something bad happened in this city. Many of the city’s leaders and other Black people were killed or ran out of town. There is a beautiful memorial dedicated to those people that were hurt in 1898. The memorial is in 1898 Park, and you will get to visit it at the end of this tour by riding the bus. The monument was designed to look like paddles — the paddles stand for the spiritual importance of water in the African culture.”

Starting this school year, teachings of the massacre will be added to the 4th grade when students study North Carolina history. According to staff, the pupils will “investigate the causes, the events, and the legacy of Wilmington 1898.” Teachers are given a Brittanica Kids resource to use in their lessons. 

In 8th grade, students revisit the curricula as part of the Wilmington 1898 History Lab — an activity where they review background information and are asked as part of the study: “Should the current governor issue a formal apology for the events of Wilmington 1898 on behalf of the state of North Carolina?”

The 8th graders also read “The Ghost of 1898,” a 2010 article from the Raleigh News & Observer. 

Reviewing the 1898 coup is not required in high school American history, but NHCS staff said it is “strongly encouraged.” If taught, the same resources used in 8th grade are repurposed and students are asked to compare the Wilmington coup with the 1921 Tulsa Massacre.

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, Wildeboer cast doubt on what the educators were actually teaching. 

“I’ve heard from a lot of people it is being changed and repackaged, especially the 1898,” Wildeboer said during the meeting. 

In a conversation with PCD on Wednesday, Wildeboer said he heard concerns from parents, though didn’t specify any instances in the curricula he thought was different. His fellow board members Judy Justice and Nelson Beaulieu said they have not witnessed curricula discrepancies.

Parents have always been able to view curricula details on the North Carolina Board of Education website. According to school district spokesperson Russell Clark, NHCS will launch its own user-friendly curriculum and instruction page for the first time this school year so parents can check in on classroom content.

Parent access to curricula is a common topic during school board meetings’ public comment period.

Faison assured Wildeboer district staff work with teachers to focus on factual information, not opinions.

“You have to be careful with history — or anything, really — to not bring your interpretation. That is not our role as educators,” Faison said. “When someone is teaching, whether it’s history or anything else, you should never know their view, because it’s not about their view. It’s about the facts.”

Board member Beaulieu agreed.

“It’s not about a teacher’s interpretation, it’s about the students,” Beaulieu said to PCD. “But our teachers are doing a great job with the social studies curriculum.”

Wildeboer shared with PCD some facts he thinks may be misconstrued. 

“I think there’s a lot of thought right now around 1898 that there were a bunch of really bad Republicans that chased around Democrats,” Wildeboer said. “But the truth of the matter is that it was the exact opposite: A lot of African Americans back then were Republicans, and they were chased by Democrats.”

Though true that the coup’s organizers were Democrats, the overthrown Fusionist government was made up of populist and Republican officials. 

However, to evaluate those groups based on today’s party platforms and politics would be an unfair simplification of history. The ideologies now associated with Democrats and Republicans didn’t start to solidify until Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980.

The post-Reconstruction period was a power struggle between pro-civil rights Republicans and Southern white Democrats who opposed equality. In 1894, Republicans, in partnership with Populists, won the state legislature and worked together to govern collaboratively as Fusionists.

The white Democrats concocted a white supremacy campaign involving racist propaganda to regain power. Wilmington’s municipal election was not until March 1899, but Democrats did not want to wait; they launched their coup two days after the 1898 election. 

The insurrection was a turning point in the post-Reconstruction era, as the North Carolina legislature heavily restricted Black people’s voting rights through constitutional amendments in 1900 and started ushering in the worst of the Jim Crow laws.

The coup was largely ignored for upward of 100 years and wasn’t officially recognized by the state legislature until 2007.

Curricula was not introduced into the public school system until “about 10 years ago,” Clark confirmed.

“Obviously we had slavery. Slavery was horrible and that is a fact,” Wildeboer said. “But I think the concern, overall, that I’ve heard, is that we don’t want to say that a people are marginalized people now. I’m not saying that we are perfect as a nation, because we’re not, but I think we’re a lot better than we were.”

During the meeting, Wildeboer said he disapproved of certain words, which raised questions about what language is categorized as fact and who gets to make that decision. 

“I’m going to continue to be concerned about our social studies curriculum overall with glossary terms such as ‘oppressed,’ ‘oppressor,’ ‘marginalized people,’” Wildeboer said. 

Justice told PCD those terms are facts. “People were oppressed. What do you think slavery was?” she asked. 

To not address them, she added, would be ignoring a major problem around equity, diversity and inclusion — also a hot topic among school board members over the last year.

In January, the board ousted equity firm Sophic Solutions over budget concerns and voted to handle the measures in-house, hiring Deputy Superintendent LaChawn Smith as chief of equity, diversity and inclusion offier (Smith resigned after two months on the job).

The board faced pushback on EDI from parents who feared their children were being fed certain thoughts about race.

Last year, the school board also was mired in protests surrounding critical race theory, which is not a part of the district’s curricula. There still continues to be a national uproar over the 40-year-old academic concept that, in essence, argues race is a social construct, nevertheless embedded in our legal systems and policies. 

In September 2021, the North Carolina legislature tried to pass a bill barring teachers from “promoting” certain beliefs surrounding racism and equality. 

The conversation over classroom content likely will continue as the November election approaches, which will have Wildeboer, Justice and Beaulieu on the ballot. 

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at 

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