CHEYENNE – The story of Ota Benga isn’t required learning in the history courses offered to students in Laramie County School District 1.
But maybe it should be, the leaders of Cheyenne’s chapter of Sankofa, a national nonprofit and African heritage awareness group that originated in Nashville, said at a conference it hosted Saturday.
For a brief time in the early 1900s, white entertainment executives marketed Benga to fairgoers as the missing link between ape and man.
Slave traders kidnapped Benga from the presently known Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa. He was sold to various venues, including the Bronx Zoo, which forced Benga to live in an exhibit alongside an ape. Public backlash against the racist and inhumane treatment of the young man led to his release, but he died by suicide in 1916.
Benga’s is the type of story – the reminders of past racial injustice in America – missing from the curriculum in Laramie County School District 1, suggested Catherine Fitzhugh, a retired Cheyenne educator and pastor at Unity Mission Baptist Church, Saturday morning at the Ninth Annual International Africa MAAFA Remembrance Day Conference in Cheyenne.
The word “maafa” is a Swahili term, which means “the scattering” or “African Holocaust,” and is used to describe the past and ongoing violence leveled against Africans like Benga and their descendants.
Fitzhugh, who was one of the speakers at the conference, showed a video that recounted Benga’s tragic story to an audience of about 40 community members in the conference center at Laramie County Community College.
“I knew a lot of that. But to sit here and look at it ... Do you know how angry I am right now?” she said through a microphone at the lectern.
“Yes,” a few people in the audience enthusiastically responded before Fitzhugh continued.
“Do you understand why they’re marching in the streets right now?” she said, referring to the recent spate of Black Lives Matter protests – some in Cheyenne – sparked by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed by Minneapolis police in May.
“Yes,” a chorus of audience members responded again.
Fitzhugh then delved into a brief history of how racism has denied Black Americans access to an equitable education since the time of slavery. She told attendees about her own experiences going to school in Jim Crow-era Louisiana, which did not have the same resources as the segregated white schools. When she was in elementary school, her family moved to Wyoming. Only then did she realize how inadequate her segregated education had been.
“I watched my grades plummet,” recalled Fitzhugh, who supplemented her education with summer school and eventually became a teacher, in part because she didn’t “want any other Black boy or girl to feel like they can’t read and write.”
“I tried to give them an education that not only came out of a textbook, but about what life was like in our own country for (Black) people,” said Fitzhugh, who last taught at McCormick Junior High School about 10 years ago.
But infusing Black history and culture into her lesson plans was a personal choice Fitzhugh had to make as an educator; teaching about Black Wyomingites – or Americans – is not a specific requirement of Wyoming’s state social studies standards. It’s not a significant part of the district’s curriculum, either.
That has the potential to change, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, who could not attend the event, said in a pre-recorded video message. LCSD1 Superintendent Boyd Brown was scheduled to give the featured presentation, but emailed conference organizers Saturday morning to say “I am not going to make it today. I have COVID symptoms.” (Brown declined to elaborate when contacted by a WTE reporter.)
“The most important voice in the room right now is not my voice or any other speaker’s. It’s your voice,” said Balow, who noted that in 2017 the Wyoming Legislature passed a law that has amended state standards to expressly require the teaching of American Indian history and culture.
Balow urged audience members who want to see better representation of Black history in Wyoming’s education system to share their ideas with the State Board of Education or their state legislators.
“Start thinking as a community about what is important for all Wyoming students to know about what is important in Black history, Black politics, and especially as it relates to Wyoming as a state,” said Balow, who added that the American Indian standards were the result of years of lobbying.
“I’m happy to have some of those same conversations with you one on one and find out what it is you want students to learn about … Black Wyomingites.”
James Peebles, conference chair and founder of Sankofa, said he’s ready to see more Black history in Wyoming’s classrooms all year long.
He started the MAAFA conference nine years ago, shortly after moving to Cheyenne from Tennessee, in an effort to raise awareness about Black history.
Down South, Peebles grew up learning about the intricacies of Black history from his family and community, but said he doesn’t see as many of those opportunities in Cheyenne, where about 3% of the population identifies as Black. Even still, numerous allegations of racism and discrimination within LCSD1 have surfaced through the years.
“In cities where you have a large percentage of African American (people), the history and culture is taught,” said Peebles, who has observed that local young people “seem somewhat oblivious to the history of slavery, civil rights movement, Frederick Douglass, etc.”
Moreover, Peebles said, integrating Black history into the larger narrative of American history – and the year-round curriculum and standards – stands to benefit students of all races and ethnicities.
“If we had taught and applied African American history since the beginning of Reconstruction (1865), we would not have this divisiveness we have today,” he said.