CRT or Culturally Responsive Teaching may feel like the new and overly politicized buzzword right now. However, these intentional teaching and student learning practices, based on tenants of empowerment and social connectedness, can be traced as far back as post-civil war and the Reconstruction era in 1865.
At that time, the education of Blacks was left solely to the Black communities. Black teachers developed responsive practices that managed to meet their students' academic, social, and emotional needs.
Let's recall this time in history. Then, teachers taught with far less— no WIFI to grab the most current research, no peer-reviewed studies to pass on to peers, and no outside resources or TikTok therapist with insight on exactly how to support children and families dealing with generations of dehumanizing treatment, trauma, and enslavement.
However, Black teachers understood the importance of building students' cultural pride and self-esteem as tools to reach their students better and teach them new things. Therefore, black teachers encouraged students to see themselves as more than slaves.
Black teachers did NOT teach academic content in isolation. Instead, teachers connected strategies to a deeper purpose. They acknowledged that they first needed to create spaces of belonging, love, and cultural care for the highest level of student learning.
Black teachers had an innate concern for Black communities. Therefore, they facilitated learning through a shared value system based on owning your power, knowing your cultural value, and building wealth and independence in your life.
Black teachers would focus on showcasing Black students' strengths, such as their African roots in music, ancestral ties to invention and innovation, and interconnectedness with language and communication. In addition, teachers exposed their students to great literature and hymns that built their spirits while modeling skills and teaching academic content. Ultimately, Black teachers designed educational experiences that were racially affirming and socially meaningful to the world around their students.
However, before long, word of successful Black schools became a target for white supremacist violence. By the early 1870s, considered the collapse or rollback of the Reconstruction era, Black schoolhouses were burned to a cinder and uprooted. Black teachers were mobbed and murdered, and the mission to splinter what was working to educate Black enslaved people best, was done.
Although the federal government acknowledged that the education of former slaves should be a priority, there was little support provided to help sustain these schools. Instead, strict regulations on programs for Blacks were created to ensure Black schools were mostly hubs to train former slaves for manual labor and domestic service.
From this dominant white perspective, a Black student's cultural heritage was not viewed as a strength to launch new academic content. Instead, blackness was a hindrance, a deficit, and something to be ignored altogether.
Despite all the efforts put in place by Black teachers in Black schoolhouses, post–Civil War events would later lay the foundation for a long history of racial divide and entrenched poverty for Black communities and schools.
The genesis of the "separate but unequal" debate had begun and would continue for many decades. Unfortunately, this also took the focus further away from Black students' strengths and their cultural greatness; the focus shifted from Black students and their cultural capital to the politics of desegregating schools. The footprint of desegregation catalyzed the racist infrastructure we are still feeling the repercussions of today.
Systemic racism in our school systems results from people in power making decisions about our American school systems that did not believe Blacks or people of color worthy of education. Therefore, they were not a significant part of the mainstream educational discourse.
Given this deliberate and willful systematic oppression, the idea of valuing Black culture as a tool to use in schools and classrooms was not the focus in the typical white school setting. Black people had been told continuously and systematically that they were inferior, incapable of high academic achievement, and that their culture was seen as a deficit, not a strength. We still experience the offspring of this deep-seated mindset. For most young Black youth in school today, their performance has replicated this low expectation for success.
And we wonder why?
So, why this is important:
It is important to recognize what worked. Although culturally relevant teaching is connected to Black and enslaved people, we can connect what worked for Black students and Black teachers and apply these practices to historically excluded populations (LGBTQIA+ communities, students with disabilities, etc.) to gain future success in our classrooms across the country. Knowing what worked then allows teachers and school leaders to grasp that as our American school systems were developed and designed to value whiteness as the prioritized, mainstream cultural viewpoint. And that it's time our schools reimagined school culture.
Talking about our past can reveal pathways forward. Our history also provides us with evidence on what NOT to continue in our school systems for fear of further negatively impacting diverse populations simply because we are unaware.
It's time to take action. The time has come to reincorporate these intentional practices that Black teachers used post-Civil war, based on empowerment and social connectedness tenants. Students, now more than ever, need culturally connected schools and classrooms, and therefore we must give their schools the cultural reboot they are looking for. We must transform our school culture and school communities to better reflect our students' greatness. We must rethink our systems and routines to allow students to see themselves reflected positively back in their communities and create safe spaces to learn and belong. To truly cultivate the next generation of diverse thinkers and leaders, we need to use our historical context as a guiding light to what will matter most in the future.