Meet the "scholars" who created Florida's new Black history curriculum
To comply with the Stop WOKE Act, a 2022 law championed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R), the state needed to create a new curriculum for Black history. The law required the curriculum to "celebrate the inspirational stories of African Americans who prospered, even in the most difficult circumstances" and banned instruction that would make students "feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the individual played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race."
The new Black history curriculum was approved by the State Board of Education on July 19. The response has been scathing. "Today's actions by the Florida state government are an attempt to bring our country back to a 19th century America where Black life was not valued, nor our rights protected," NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a statement.
Much of the criticism has centered around a provision of the new curriculum that requires instruction about "how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit." That provision was blasted by Black Republicans. “There is no silver lining in slavery,” Senator and presidential candidate Tim Scott (R-SC) said. “Slavery was really about separating families, about mutilating humans and even raping their wives. It was just devastating.” Congressmen Byron Donalds (R-FL) and John James (R-MI) also spoke out against the curriculum. DeSantis responded by attacking the three Black Republicans, claiming they accepted Democrats' "false narratives" and "lies."
DeSantis also defended the notion that enslaved people benefited from slavery. "Some of the folks…eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life," DeSantis told a reporter while campaigning in Iowa.
Two members of the work group that created the curriculum, Frances Presley Rice and William Allen, issued a press release listing some enslaved people that benefited from slavery. But the statement is full of factual errors. Specifically, according to experts who criticized the release, "nearly half the figures highlighted by the state were never enslaved." Lewis Latimer, for example, is listed in the press release as a formerly enslaved "blacksmith." But Latimer was never enslaved and "worked as an inventor, participating in the development of the telephone and incandescent lighting, among other inventions." Others "did spend time in slavery" but "did not gain their skills from their servitude." Booker T. Washington, listed on the document as an "educator," was illiterate when he was emancipated at the age of 9.
But the problems with the new Black history curriculum extend well beyond that one passage. George Washington is listed as a "key figure" in the "quest to end slavery" even though he never attempted to end slavery and died owning 317 enslaved people. The curriculum describes "disorderly assembly" and "breaking the law" as a characteristic of "irresponsible citizenship," even though Martin Luther King Jr., advanced the cause of civil rights through civil disobedience, regularly engaging in assemblies derided as "disorderly" by segregationists. Throughout the curriculum, aside from a passing mention of "Southern whites" who opposed reconstruction, white people are described only as supporting freedom and justice for Black Americans.
DeSantis has defended Florida's new Black history curriculum but, as criticism mounted, has also sought to personally distance himself from the document. Last week, DeSantis claimed he "wasn’t involved" and attributed the curriculum to "scholars."
But the so-called "scholars" were a work group that was hand-selected by the DeSantis administration. Some members of the work group were educators from Florida, but the body was reportedly dominated by two members, Frances Presley Rice and William Allen. Both Rice and Allen have a long history of highly inflammatory and partisan commentary, expressing views that are anathema to the vast majority of Black history scholars.
Who is Dr. William B. Allen?
Allen, a retired professor, has emerged as the most vocal defender of the new standards and its approach to slavery. (After Florida's new Black history curriculum was published, Michigan State appears to have removed Allen's bio from its website.) In a statement co-authored by Rice, Allen writes, “We proudly stand behind these African American History Standards.”
But a closer look into Allen’s background raises questions about his credibility and qualifications. Allen has a history of making incendiary remarks and a track record of promoting right-wing ideology. In 1989, when he served as chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, Allen gave a talk at an anti-gay conference titled “Blacks? Animals? Homosexuals? What is a Minority?” He branded “special classes of protection for homosexuals and other minorities as a ‘fatal’ mistake” that heightens “tensions and antagonism” within society. According to his prepared text, creating legal protections for minority groups “is the beginning of the evil of reducing American blacks to an equality with animals and then seducing other groups to seek the same charitable treatment.''
At the time, the rest of the Commission denounced the speech for being ''disgusting and unnecessarily inflammatory.'' When the Commission held a vote to condemn the speech, Allen "was the only member of the commission to vote in behalf of himself."
During his time as chairman, Allen was also charged with kidnapping a 14-year-old girl from an indigenous reservation in Arizona. The girl was at the center of a custody battle between her birth mother and a white couple that wanted to adopt her. “Allen contends that the girl wants to leave the reservation, though the mother has formal custody,” TIME reported in 1989.
Following pressure from the Commission, Allen eventually apologized. But even then, he said he would “not assume responsibility'' for the events. He also refused to step down, and instead called for the resignation of everyone on the Commission, including himself.
In 1996, Allen directed a “state report [in Michigan] that recommended that the state give parents money to send their children to the schools of their choice.” The Washington Post wrote that the “report was lambasted and then junked by state officials who called it a recipe for destroying public education.”
More recently, between 2005 and 2008, Allen led Toward a Fair Michigan, a group that sought to end affirmative action in Michigan. The group’s board of directors included Hillsdale College Professor and former Heritage Foundation Fellow Mickey Craig.
Currently, Allen is the lead scholar of the conservative think tank Center for Urban Renewal and Education (CURE). The group, which was founded by anti-abortion activist Star Parker, describes itself as “a pro-life Christian organization.” According to one report from CURE, abortion “has been particularly harmful to black culture and communities.” Allen espouses similar views — he once publicly claimed that black communities “were being targeted with abortion clinics.” But this argument that access to abortion hurts Black women and contributes to the demise of Black communities is widely debunked. As Shyrissa Dobbins-Harris writes, “instead of properly condemning government actions that harm living Blackwomen and the black community (poverty, police brutality, mass incarceration) genocide myth proponents blame Blackwomen for practicing their own reproductive rights.”
Allen has also been a vocal critic of the 1619 Project, which is explicitly banned from being taught in Florida schools. In one YouTube video, titled “The Myth of 1619 with Dr. William Allen,” Allen accuses the 1619 project of presenting “a very distorted picture of the country’s past.”
In the video, Allen goes on to claim that “the left lives on the proposition that..there is systemic racism, institutional racism, white privilege.” Accepting the “whole idea of diversity and identity,” Allen says, “is apartheid.”
Who is Frances Presley Rice?
The other key member of the work group is Frances Presley Rice, the chairman of the National Black Republican Association (NBRA). In 2006, Rice made national headlines after running radio ads across the country that claimed Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican. (This claim is false — King was neither a Republican, nor a Democrat.) In 2008, Rice made headlines again after the NBRA put up billboards across Southwest Florida with the same message. Rice told the Herald Tribune that she was hoping to “expose the Democratic Party’s racist past” and convince more Black people to vote for John McCain.
That summer, Rice launched additional ads accusing Barack Obama's friends of being "unrepentant terrorists." Following Obama’s election, the NBRA issued a “White Guilt Emancipation Declaration” and declared that “white American citizens are now, henceforth and forever more free of White Guilt” because the country elected “a socialist who does not share the values of average Americans and will use the office of the presidency to turn America into a failed socialist nation.”
Rice was also under fire after her magazine, The Black Republican, published a picture of Ku Klux Klan members burning a cross, with the caption, “Every person in this photograph was a Democrat." But this statement is highly misleading. As Princeton University Professor Tera Hunter told USA TODAY in 2020, “this trope is a fallback argument used to discredit current Democratic Party policies” and fails to acknowledge "the realignment of the party structure in the mid-20th century.”
Rice’s magazine also included articles titled “Democrats embrace their child molesters," "Top 10 Democratic sex scandals in Congress," and "Democrats wage war on God.” The content was so egregious that the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, who had helped Rice secure funding for the magazine, expressed disappointment.
In 2008, Rice also “attempt[ed] to defend the GOP’s infamous ‘southern strategy,’” Rightwing Watch reported. The Southern Strategy was a Nixon-era political tactic that sought to lure white voters through racist dog whistles. Over the years, Republican leaders have apologized for the Southern Strategy. But according to Rice, the Southern Strategy was not about appealing to racism but rather “was designed to get the fair-minded people in the South to stop discriminating against blacks.”
Rice was one of the members appointed by the DeSantis administration to the Black history work group, despite having no academic credentials in Black history. Rice holds a law degree and an MBA, but, according to her LinkedIn profile, no PhD. Nevertheless, she bills herself as "Dr. Frances Rice."
Her experience in Black history education is also limited to the Yocum African American History Association (YAAHA), a group she co-founded in 2018. But YAAHA’s educational content is not always historically accurate, Luke A. Flynt points out on Twitter. In one slide, for example, slavery is blamed on “greedy African Kings.”
Florida's abandoned African American History Task Force
In 1994, Florida created an African American History Task Force, but the group went dormant under DeSantis. Despite “state law providing for [the group’s] input,” members of the group said they “had little say in the development of the new standards.” After the new curriculum was created earlier this year, DeSantis began loading the task force with partisan members. Since May, “six of the nine voting members on the African American history task force were appointed by the Commissioner of Education.” In June, the group’s vice chair, Dr. Samuel Wright, resigned “in protest of what he saw as a political coup.”
According to WOKV, “[f]ive of the six new appointees are either directly affiliated with the Republican Party or have previously been appointed to positions” by DeSantis. The sixth new appointee is Florida State Representative Kimberly Daniels (D). Daniels has advocated that “In God We Trust” signs be “placed in public schools in response to a school shooting,” “ranted against witches,” and “claimed to cure someone’s cancer with a CD of Bible verses.”
In 2008, during a guest sermon in Ohio, Daniels said, “I thank God for slavery,” stating that "if it wasn’t for slavery, I might be somewhere in Africa worshiping a tree.” In 2011, Daniels defended her comments, saying, “If slavery wouldn’t have happened, it was an awful thing, I wouldn’t be living in the greatest country in the land today.” Daniels later said her comments were “taken out of context.”
Daniels did not participate in the creation of the new Black history standards but she made clear the standards go too far, even for her. Daniels said she “disagree[s] with and would have immediately challenged and resisted any notion that slavery was a benefit to African Americans.”