Teach Truth Days of Action

Educators Speak Out

By Valencia Abbott, Tamara Anderson, Dawn Bolton, Christina Bustos, Anna O’Brien, Michael Rebne, Heather Smith, and Vanessa Williams

The Zinn Education Project — coordinated by Teaching for Change and Rethinking Schools — helped organize “Teach Truth Days of Action” over the summer on June 11 and 12. During these days, teachers across the country rallied against the anti-history and gag bills being instituted in many states. Many of those teachers also organized local events where they pledged to teach the truth and also engaged in popular education about the bans and why being unwavering in their commitment to teach the truth is so necessary.

We asked several of the Teach Truth Days of Action organizers to explain how they organized their day of action, what they were hoping people would learn, and what the experience meant to them. Here’s what they said . . .

Teaching Truth and Kayaking Down the Dan 
By Valencia Abbott 

The organization Outdoor Afro Greensboro celebrates Black people’s connections with nature, and the Good Stewards of Rockingham protect and restore the environment in ways that also build resilient communities. The two groups had already planned an event together this summer and I leveraged my position in both organizations to incorporate the Teach Truth Days of Action into that program. 

The event was paddling down North Carolina’s Dan River for six miles. There were 17 of us, the majority being first-time kayakers. Almost everyone was Black. This was my second time kayaking, and I knew there was no way to compete with the meditative and scenic views of the river, so we created a slide presentation shared on social media and the Good Stewards website before the event. The presentation showed that the first history of the place begins with the Saura Indians, also known as the Cheraw. It also showed the history of people of African descent connected to the Dan from the antebellum period to the Civil Rights Movement.

On the water that day, we had some important conversations about the place and geography we were in. Yet, the most startling sight was the flapping of a Confederate flag high on the bank and shrouded in the trees against the beautiful Carolina sky. The initial reaction of those of us who saw it was the tangled history that the flag holds; and dark clouds of disdain momentarily showed on our faces. Just as the kayak dashed and pulled us from the sight of the flag, we said that moment reminded us where we were, but in no way defined our right to be there, kayaking on the Dan River.

Valencia Abbott (vabbott@roc.k12.nc.us) teaches civic literacy, economics, personal finance, and U.S. history at Rockingham Early College High School in Wentworth, North Carolina. 

Why a Student Walkout in 1967 Is So Important Today
By Tamara Anderson

On Nov. 11, 1967, more than 3,000 students organized a walkout in Philadelphia and marched to the board of education building with 25 demands. The demands included hiring more Black educators, including Black studies in the curriculum, and reducing the number of police in schools. While student leaders were negotiating the demands with the superintendent and board chair, the now-infamous Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo gave the order for police to attack the peaceful protestors. Nearly 60 people were arrested and 22 were seriously injured. 

Today, the intersection of North 21st Street and Winter Street — where the attack took place — is home to luxury condominiums and this history is largely unknown. But, after the hard work of five high school students, a historical marker was finally designated there in 2020. On June 12, two of the organizers who helped win the historical marker were joined at the site by educators, community members, and activists. 

Taryn Flaherty, one of the organizers, now a history major at the University of Pennsylvania, shared how a high school history project turned into a call to action. This included completing a 104-page application. Flaherty believed the students in 1967 had “a vision for what education should and could be.” 

Philadelphia Teach Truth Day of Action organizers chose to have our event at this site because there are students and teachers who still do not know what happened, and how it connects to our struggle today. We lifted the demands of the students in 1967 again by standing at the marker and chanting “Teach the truth!” and “No more lies!”

Like 1967, we are still demanding more Black educators, Ethnic studies, and no police presence in our schools.

“Teach the truth!” “No more lies!” The struggle continues.

Tamara Anderson has been an educator for more than 25 years. She is one of the Teach Truth national organizers with the Zinn Education Project and is on the steering committee of Black Lives Matter at School.

Passing It On
By Dawn Bolton

Our local coalition in Decatur, Georgia, came together for the Teach Truth Days of Action because of the efforts to hamper teachers and miseducate students. Miseducation goes against my philosophies as an educator and person, and is everything I’m working against because there is no progress without authentic education. 

Our coalition organized to welcome home college students who were instrumental in removing a Confederate monument on Juneteenth Eve 2020. We are proud of them for carrying forward the work of previous generations and wanted to connect their stories. We decided that a “Truth Walk” was a good way. We planned stops along the walk at the former site of a Confederate monument, a Martin Luther King Jr. marker, and the land where the African American Herring Street and Trinity High Schools stood during segregation. Each stop featured young speakers and educators from City Schools of Decatur, DeKalb County Schools, and Atlanta Public Schools. Intergenerational voices spoke about decolonization, Latinx student organizing, and community support for teachers.

Our walk ended at the former Carl G. Renfroe Middle School, recently renamed Beacon Hill Middle School. Beacon Hill is the historic Black community that has experienced waves of displacement and gentrification. Beacon Hill elders were there to greet us. They shared their struggles, progress, and spoke of the importance of carrying the torch forward.

Afterward, my uncle shared his reflections about the importance of elders talking with young people about their experiences. He had not often shared the painful stories from his past. Now, he realizes that he needs to in order to pass on the lessons he learned. 

We must continue to share our truths and mentor parents and students to empower them to create positive change. We have to provide opportunities so all our children can succeed. We do this by teaching the truth, and the walk reminded us of that, every step of the way.

Dawn Bolton is a recently retired special education and reading teacher. She has worked in Dekalb County, Maui County, and City Schools of Decatur, Georgia.

Arizona Teachers Teach the Truth
By Christina Bustos

On June 11, the social and racial justice committee of the Mesa Education Association held a Teach Truth Day of Action. There were five participants from around the valley. We held a brief discussion of the historical context of Native boarding schools, Arizona connections, and how to use primary sources when teaching history through a critical lens.

Arizona was home to some 50 Native boarding schools and our day of action surrounded that history, which has largely been hidden or used as propaganda.

Our lead presenter and fellow history teacher discussed how we can search for specific information in primary resources while questioning whose stories we are not hearing. Everyone also received a copy of Laura Tohe’s No Parole Today and Fatty Legs by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret-Olemaun  Pokiak-Fenton to use in their classrooms. While these authors did not have specific stories of our Arizona boarding schools, these are the perspectives we need to hear more — those who were impacted most closely.

Arizona is no stranger to hard history. In addition to the boarding schools, Arizona is home to one former Japanese American incarceration camp, the SB 1070 “show me your papers” law that in essence tried to make it OK to racially profile and detain people based on race, and the banning of Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program. (The ban was struck down years later.) And it never ceases. This year there was an attempt to pass a teacher gag bill and other laws that will harm teachers and students.

Just listing those things makes me feel overwhelmed. But when we create and hold space for educators to gather, grapple with uncomfortable topics, and develop a community around discovering the truth and our power, everything is a little easier. l

Christina Bustos, a 19-year veteran teacher, works in Mesa, Arizona, as an educational technology coach. Bustos also serves as the vice president for their local association.

The Friendship Nine
By Anna O’Brien

On June 11, I celebrated the Teach Truth Day of Action with a teacher friend. I picked them up and we headed south 30 miles from my home in Charlotte to Rock Hill, South Carolina. Our goal was to uplift the story of nine students from Friendship Junior College who were audacious enough to believe that they could change the status quo by sitting at a segregated lunch counter.

A historical marker now stands like a sentry at the site of what was once McCrory’s Five and Dime. My friend and I held signs up high that proclaimed our commitment to teach the truth about our history. Other than an older couple who joined us, it was just us. But we made the most of it.

We spent our time reading each display in a Friendship Nine mini-museum that chronicles their journey. Photographs and documents illustrate the courage of these young men who chose to serve their 30-day sentence working on a chain gang. They could have simply paid the fine for “trespassing” but they were unwilling to contribute to a system that was corrupt and unjust. Their actions in 1961 rippled throughout national youth movements and soon other student protesters joined the “jail, no bail” movement. More than five decades later, in a rare turn of events, the sentences of the Friendship Nine were vacated. And in an unimaginable twist, the judge who exonerated them is the nephew of the judge who convicted them.

I have been to many historical sites and maintain that a kind of electricity in the air around them contains the echoes from voices past. I felt it at that Rock Hill marker, a palpable connection to the past. For me, as a teacher, history is most meaningful when it explores place and individual stories. I would like to foster that same connection in my students. l

Anna O’Brien has been an educator for 20 years. She teaches 8th grade South Carolina and U.S. History at Pleasant Knoll Middle School in Fort Mill, South Carolina.

Recommitting Ourselves 
By Michael Rebne 

Ten educators gathered at the Revolución Educativa collaborative space in northeast Kansas City to participate in the Teach Truth Days of Action. At this retreat, we held space to discuss best practices for anti-racist teaching and allyship, as well as how to grow our community in inclusive ways. We read from Dean Spade’s book Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next), which grounded us in themes of collective care and activism.  

We shared freely about the challenges and successes in growing the Teach Truth movement and advancing the demands that we have spent the last two years pushing. We have been demanding districts do things like build diverse libraries and engage in anti-racism training.  

After this gathering, a few of us joined up with America Patton, a local writer who was doing a live historical presentation at the site of the Quindaro Township in Kansas City, Kansas.  

 Quindaro has a rich history, including as an Underground Railroad site where Black people escaping slavery in Missouri made it into Kansas, assisted by local Wyandots and other farmers. It is also the site of what used to be Western University, the only school for African Americans west of the Mississippi. Now, John Brown’s statue is all that remains.  

It was on this site that we recommitted to teaching the truth, despite local pressure, including anti-CRT bills and the publishing of a so-called woke heat map by the far right organization Liberty Alliance. This “heat map” shows locations of schools in our area that are holding diversity trainings or allegedly teaching critical race theory and was posted in order to intimidate educators like us. We pledged to never lie to our students about the history of racism, sexism, and homophobia and ongoing oppression.

 Overall, the Day of Action was a powerful way to reenergize ourselves around our demands, which ask that local districts make good on the equity statements they quickly posted during the George Floyd uprisings. l  

Michael Rebne (mrebne@gmail.com) teaches at Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kansas. He is part of the SURJ Education Core Leadership Team, which includes Cecilia Belser-Patton, Cornell Ellis, Crystal Yakel-Kuntz, Emily Twyman-Brown, Kimberly Whitman, Kimberly Gilman, and Quinn White.

Salem Quakers: Then and Now
By Heather Smith

On June 11, about 50 people attended our Teach Truth Day of Action where we shed light on the role of the free Black community in Salem, Ohio, and their role in the Underground Railroad (UGRR). 

We organized a historical march with stops at Marius and Emily Robinson’s home, Edwin Coppock’s memorial at Hope Cemetery, and the St. John AME Church on 3rd Street, among others. 

Marius and Emily Rakestraw Robinson were abolitionists. Marius ran the anti-slavery Bugle and Emily taught free Black students in Cincinnati. Edwin Coppock was part of John Brown’s men in Harpers Ferry and was hanged for treason. The AME Church was built in the 1870s by formerly enslaved people and shut down in the 1930s. AME churches played a significant role on the UGRR.  

The other organizers of the march and I are proud to live in Salem and of our past as a place of radical abolitionism. It feels good to live in a place known for fighting for what’s right. Another part of Salem’s history that we are proud of is the role played in the UGRR by the Quakers, who had many homes with hidden rooms and spaces for people to hide. 

Meanwhile, 93 percent of Salem’s roughly 12,000 residents are now white and the area is conservative (more than 70 percent of Columbiana County residents, where Salem is located, voted for Trump). I wondered what made people in the 1800s so sympathetic to Black Lives Mattering then when it feels like most residents today do not. 

One thing was the role of free Black communities in proximity to Quaker settlements, including their AME churches, schools, and Prince Hall Masons, which allowed people to organize, communicate, educate, and lead more people successfully toward the freedom they sought. 

Telling a more accurate account of our city’s history does not change what happened, but it may change how we think about ourselves now and it may inspire us to take more action. l

Heather Smith is a Salem, Ohio, resident and middle school teacher at Youngstown’s Rayen Early College.  

Educators Calling, Communities Responding
By Vanessa Williams

A small but mighty choir of teachers, community activists, and students gathered at Washington, D.C.’s African American Civil War Memorial on June 11 to demonstrate their support of the Teach Truth Days of Action. Through the heat, humidity, and rain, they were undeterred in their calls to lift each other up and hold each other down in the need to teach truth. 

Frank Smith, veteran of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and executive director of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum, captured the crowd with his remarks. He reflected back to the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the instrumental role African Americans have had in pushing the country closer to making good on its espoused ideals. He named all types of folks who are and were change makers in the struggle for a more just nation.

But it was the call and response portion of the rally that stuck with me most because it so clearly met the moment and served as a powerful metaphor for the ongoing struggle of correcting and adding more dimensions and perspectives to the historical narrative.

High school teacher and event MC Jessica Rucker led the call and response with titles from people’s history lessons at the Zinn Education Project website.

“Reconstructing the South” “Teach it!”

“The Black Panther Party” “Teach it!” 

“Who Gets to Vote?” “Teach it!”

The chanting made me think of my former classroom. Call and response was a fundamental part of my practice when I taught middle and high school social studies. We relied on it heavily as a tool for simple affirmations.

“I have the floor.” “And you have my undivided attention.” 

“Are you receiving what I’m expressing?” “Yes, I am.”

These are incredibly heavy times and the demonstrators lifted my spirits. l

Vanessa Williams (dcaesj@teachingforchange.org) taught middle and high school social studies for six years before working with Teaching for Change. She manages the D.C. Area Educators for Social Justice.