Kimberly Johnson said as a child she didn’t know black people could write books.
“I never saw black authors, I never met a black author so I didn’t even know this was something I could do,” Johnson said.
That’s why Johnson -- author of 22 children’s books, and multiple motivational books and instruction guides -- says it’s important for African-American school history lessons to include an array of role models.
“Once I went to school, I rarely had a chance to learn about African-Americans other than the ones that people already knew about. We were not talking about Langston Hughes, Fredrick Douglas or Toni Morrison,” Johnson said in a message to The Herald. “Had I known that these iconic writers existed it would have planted seeds earlier I believe.”
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While February is Black History Month, Johnson said educators must include cultural history lessons all year by referencing a Hispanic chemist during a science lesson or an African-American inventor during a history or science lesson.
“We have so many black and brown children who come into a classroom setting. They come in with these notions of who they are and sometimes those notions are dispelled by negative information, or by not enough information,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to create a good balance where everybody who walks into a classroom setting feels like they are seeing themselves in the materials.”
Johnson, 54, also teaches at Clinton College in Rock Hill and Clemson University and is a course facilitator at Harvard University. She holds a doctorate of curriculum, teaching and leadership from Northeastern University in Boston. She has a master’s degree from Clemson University in youth development and leadership.
Johnson said she has spoken with many students who say they see themselves in lessons, but only in the context of civil rights and slavery.
“I thought, wow, we have really narrowed that window,” Johnson said. “I think we are doing an OK job teaching African-American history. I don’t think it’s nearly enough.”
African-American history is included in the South Carolina Education Department’s standards for social studies, said Ryan Brown, spokesperson for the department. The state offers supplemental resources such as the annual South Carolina African American History Calendar, which highlights African-Americans from South Carolina.
“There’s a lot of emphasis both within the state and within the nation on African-American history,” Brown said.
Reginald Broadnax, chair for the religious program at Clinton College, said educators must tell the whole story when teaching the history of the United States.
“I would suggest educators would look at the broader history and not just focus on major figures who tend to be white,” Broadnax said. “Public educators have to understand how the African-American struggle fits into the broader history of the country.”
Broadnax said lessons on the Civil War, for example, must include Frederick Douglas. He said Booker T. Washington must be a part of conversations about the Industrial Revolution.
Margaret Gillikin, social studies education director at Winthrop University, said there needs to be more professional development for teachers, especially social studies teachers. She said those educators need training so they feel comfortable talking about racial issues and can adequately teach them.
“What I see is some teachers do a really good job with this and some teachers don’t,” Gillikin said. “I don’t think teachers willfully don’t do it; I think they don’t know how to talk about race. I think it’s very uncomfortable for white teachers, they don’t want to say anything inappropriate.”
Johnson said educators should create more rounded lessons in science, history, math and other areas by talking about chemists, authors and people from all backgrounds. She said bringing in local people who have impacted their community also can help students see what they can do.
“I think that in order for us to make a more productive conversation, we have got to talk about African-Americans that have done powerful and profound things,” Johnson said. “I am intentional in making sure when I go to schools that I spend extra time talking about my journey as an African-American woman in literacy and as an author so kids can see they can do it, too.”
Books can provide those lessons, said Dorothy Guthrie, media specialist at Kinard Elementary in Clover. Guthrie was a member of the Coretta Scott King Book awards committee and has created a section for the books at Kinard’s library.
Coretta Scott King Book awards honor African-American authors and illustrators whose children and young adult books reflect an appreciation for African-American culture and human values, according to the American Library Association.
“These books provide the bibliotherapy that many of our children need in order to be successful,” Guthrie said. “We will not allow barriers to prevent us from learning about African-Americans and the role that they played.”
Guthrie said she is seeing more of those books merged into public schools’ curriculum.
“It’s important for children to know that although there may be barriers in their lives, they can still learn how to persevere and to hope for the future,” she said.
Rep. John King, D-York, said schools cover the basics in history, but it’s important to highlight local people who made a difference.
“Black history is South Carolina history. It’s American history. While I think we do a good job of teaching students about Dr. King and Rosa Parks, I wonder how much our students know about the Friendship Nine,” King said in a message to The Herald. “That’s an important moment in the civil rights movement, and it happened right here in Rock Hill.”
Johnson is the author of the children’s book “No Fear For Freedom: The Story of the Friendship 9.” Johnson said when she presented the book to teachers, they wanted to read it in February. So she created an instructional guide for the book to be used all year in all subject areas.
Johnson said educators must work to include culture in all of their lessons.
“It’s going to take a little bit of extra work, but the results are going to be profound,” she said. “If we make it a habit, then we create those multiple stories. Otherwise, we’re going to have a very narrow window of what culture looks like in the classroom.”
5 local places with African-American historical significance
- The Carroll (Rosenwald) School: Built in 1929, the historic school in Rock Hill serves as a place where fifth-grade students learn about the Great Depression. The school is one of more than 5,300 buildings in 15 states that was built by and for African-Americans.
McCrory’s lunch counter: The counter in downtown Rock Hill, most recently known as Five & Dine, is where the Friendship Nine held a sit-in on Jan. 31, 1961. The group of African-American student protesters was arrested. They made history for using the “Jail No Bail” strategy. In 2015, the state of South Carolina overturned their convictions.
- Clinton College: Clinton is a historically black college in Rock Hill founded in 1894. The college on Crawford Road changed from a junior college to include four-year programs in 2013, according to the school.
- Good Samaritan Hospital: The Charlotte, N.C.-based hospital was the first private hospital in North Carolina built exclusively to care for Charlotte’s black residents, according to the Charlotte Museum of History. It was built in 1891 and closed in 1982. It was renovated and became the Magnolias Rest Home, but was torn down in 1996 to make room for what is now the Bank of America Stadium. A plaque outside the stadium marks the site.
Hermon Presbyterian Church: Organized in 1869, Hermon Presbyterian started in a small building with a congregation of 41 members, according to the Hermon Community of Faith. The church served as an elementary mission school for black children as there was no public school available to them at the time. The congregation grew and eventually moved into the building on Heckle Boulevard.