An old children’s book littered with racial slurs and a vintage soap advertisement promising to turn black skin white were among the relics on display Friday morning at West Middle School.

The exhibit was one of over 30 panels and sessions at the inaugural Teaching Black History Conference. Sponsored by the newly launched MU Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education, the conference was meant to supply educators with the knowledge and resources to teach their students a multi-dimensional history of black Americans.

“These are not just things from the past,” said Khalid el-Hakim, a former history teacher and founder of the Black History 101 Mobile Museum.

El-Hakim has amassed a collection of over 7,000 artifacts of black life, from the transatlantic slave trade to the present. Since 2011, his traveling exhibit has made stops in 34 states and some 300 libraries, schools and other learning spaces.

When he stopped in Columbia, he shared their value with the teachers at the conference.

“We need to talk about how to engage students with this material and how to make it relevant,” he said.

By sharing the collection, el-Hakim strives to fill in the historical gaps in the textbooks he used as both a student and a teacher.

His mission to educate and better integrate black history into the standard narrative of American history closely aligns with many of the 150 students and educators who were at the conference.

Erica Bruington, a social studies teacher at Oakland Middle School, said she didn’t learn much about black history in school, either, but she is trying to change that experience for her students.

She thinks her black students, especially, would benefit from hearing about their ancestors through a more nuanced lens.

“An awareness and acknowledgement of that history would help (black students) feel proud of who they are,” she said.

There are barriers.

“Black history is not a focus in the curriculum,” Bruington said. “You have to do extra work to incorporate it.”

That’s why she and her colleague at Oakland, social studies department chair Brett Hecker, attended the conference: to learn creative methods for streamlining black history into the core historical narrative.

“Place-based learning” was the focus of one session. The strategy is meant to help communities reconcile their past by re-interpreting historical sites through the lens of black people. Now, Bruington and Hecker want to use it in their classrooms this fall.

“I want to have my kids think about how they would feel if they were there,” Bruington said.

Teaching a detailed understanding of the past and avoiding an oversimplification emerged as a key theme of the conference.

During the lunchtime session, “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery,” presenter Monita Bell, senior editor of Teaching Tolerance, asked the teachers in the audience if they ever had to “unteach” a historical misconception to their students.

“I had to unteach that we weren’t just slaves,” one teacher answered.

Bell said the notion that black history is synonymous with slavery strips today’s black Americans of their historical agency.

“We need to highlight human beings who resisted every day and survived and thrived in light of that reality,” Bell said. “Slavery was not an identity.”

An oversimplified portrait of blacks, however, is one reason University City High School history teacher Matthew Horn said his school-issued textbooks are gathering dust. He drove over from St. Louis to find fresh ideas on how to supplement the curriculum.

“What I’m hoping to get out of this is a more thorough understanding of the African-American experience in this country and how to best convey that to my students,” Horn said.

He said one of his biggest struggles is how to strike a balance between teaching the whole history and not overburdening his students with images of victimization.

Hearing Bell’s talk gave him some new ideas to take to his classroom.

“I heard the words resistance and empowerment,” Horn said. “That’s an area I need to blend into my classroom.”

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey:, 882-2632.

  • Kathryn Palmer is an education reporter for the Columbia Missourian and a graduate student at the MU School of Journalism. She can be reached at

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