In Dawnavyn James’ house, she learned that Jesus was Black and the history of Black people began long before slavery.
Her education in the predominately white Kansas City classrooms taught her something entirely different: Jesus and teachers were white and what little Black history there was started with the slave trade and ended with the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
James made two decisions from her experience: to become a teacher and to fill in the gaps in the education system she felt were missing.
She achieved the first goal six years ago.
The second is where James’ Black History Club for elementary-aged children comes in.
The club, which meets online weekly, has attracted families from the Columbia area, Kansas City, Texas and even California.
Enrollment will reopen in March. The $30 registration fee covers books and a T-shirt with the club’s logo.
James is collaborating with a Battle High School teacher to expand the club’s reach.
“You want to know more about your history because you’re taught everything but that,” said James, 29, a kindergarten teacher at Parkade Elementary School. “I don’t want students’ first introduction to Black history to be ‘Black people are slaves.’ Absolutely not.”
During the club’s nearly yearlong session, James hopes to help her students, who describe themselves as young historians, “understand and convey how important Black people are, not just in America but to the world,” she said.
James’ childhood experience and the necessity of her club illustrate two problems in the education system: There are too few teachers of color and too little racial diversity in the nation’s public school history books.
James is among the nearly 7% of Black teachers in Columbia Public Schools, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Five percent of the Missouri teachers are Black, the department said in its January 2019 report, which notes that white people make up 93% of teachers in the state.
Nationally, there are 3.2 million full-time teachers, 6.7% of whom are Black, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The importance of the presence of Black teachers has been documented in research, including a 2018 study shows that Black teachers improved the long-term educational attainment of Black students.
A 2017 Albert Shanker Institute report concluded that all students benefit from being educated by teachers from a variety of backgrounds, races and ethnic groups.
Exposure to such diversity better prepares children for living in a diverse society, reduces unconscious implicit biases and stereotypes and promotes cross-cultural bonding, the study said.
James’ club offers Black history to children at a younger age than is often taught in public schools, including Columbia.
“I think a lot of my kids, when they take my class or take African American literature, ... my Black students are really kind of mad that it’s their senior year of high school and they’re just learning about Marcus Garvey, or Malcolm X, or, you know, folks that they should have probably already known about,” said Greg Simmons, who teaches African American studies at Battle High School.
Simmons and James plan to collaborate. Simmons hopes to attract a core group of students to work with the younger children by facilitating in breakout rooms.
James keeps students engaged in part through games, including “Are You Smarter Than a Young Historian?” her spinoff of “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?”
“It’s really a tight-knit group of kids who are really eager to learn Black history and do have some knowledge, and we get to have these great discussions about what people call ‘hard topics,’” she said of the club members.
They enjoy the club so much that when internet problems once forced James to cancel, some suggested the club meet the following day instead.
“My babies absolutely love it. They look forward to it every week, even my 4-year-old,” said Myra Gray, whose 10- and 9-year-old children also are enrolled in the club.
“Not only are they learning of their history and themselves, but they are getting encouraged and becoming more aware issues of we as African Americans deal with,” Gray said.
Raquel Whitaker sits with her 4-year-old son during the club. She sees how groups of kids work together in breakout rooms to answer questions James may pose.
“Watching them collectively, like ‘No it was this person,’ ‘It was this,’ ‘It was that,’ ... it’s like, ‘Wow, they understand it,’” Whitaker said.
She enrolled her son, who goes to a predominately white child care facility, in the Black History club because though he recognizes that he looks different from those around him, though he does not yet understand much more about race.
James’ club “introduces him into new and different things like how she does the music, the books that engage him into it (the subject),” Whitaker said.
The idea for the club began last summer, after James lead the “Building a Black History program in Elementary” session at the Teaching Black History conference held by the Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education at MU.
Attendees, including some parents, asked whether James tutors children in Black history outside of class.
Encouraged, she spent the summer developing a space “where kids can come — no matter what color they are — to learn about Black history,” she said.
The club is an extension of the lessons she has taught in her classrooms for the past six years, where children explore Black history through its people, music and art.
James also hopes she teaches her students much more, whether in her class or through the club.
“It’s important for all kids to see Black people or people that are different than them so they can learn how to be accepting and tolerant and understanding of people when they see them,” James said.
“I wanted to create a space where kids feel safe to talk about the hardships and triumphs of Black history outside of school.”