On the afternoon of March 20, Allison Swaim–a high school history teacher in Durham–projected a Vox video onto the screen for her students about a campaign to reshape the narrative of the Civil War into one of Southern heroism.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), established in 1894, successfully pushed the Lost Cause narrative into the classroom at the start of the 20th Century. Teachers and textbooks taught children that slavery was not central to the Civil War–and that it did not inflict harm on the enslaved. According to the video about the UDC, promoters of the Lost Cause narrative demanded that schools teach “the truths of Confederate history” and urged libraries to mark certain books “Unjust to the South.”
Two days later, Swaim projected another video onto the screen. This one, from March 22nd, 2023, was a live legislative hearing on H.B. 187, a bill introduced by North Carolina Republicans to restrict how public schools teach about race and identity.
Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a similar bill in 2021. But Democrats lost seats in the 2022 elections, and the Republican-dominated legislature now has a supermajority, which means it can override Cooper’s veto. H.B. 187, titled “Equality in Education,” passed the House after a second and third reading on March 22. It also passed a first reading in the Senate on March 23.
“This great education state must have an education system that unites and teaches our children, not divides and indoctrinates them,” Rep. John A. Torbett, the bill’s sponsor, said in an earlier hearing on March 14.
Durham educators fear the bill will discourage teachers from discussing social issues, past and present. Many educators do not plan to change how they teach, though–even if their lessons make some students uncomfortable.
The bill begins by asserting the equality of all people, and continues to lay out an array of ideas that public schools cannot promote. For example, it says instructors would not be able to teach that one sex or race is superior to another. Nor could they teach that an individual is inherently “racist, sexist, or “oppressive.” They also couldn’t tell students that an individual is responsible for the past actions of their race or sex, or that the United States was created to oppress a certain race or sex.
These concepts, and other parts of the legislation, come from an executive order former president Donald Trump issued in September 2020 that restricts what federal contractors, the federal workforce, and uniformed agencies can teach their employees.
In H.B. 187, educators offering instruction on race and identity would also have to post content or provide information about speakers on their school’s website 30 days in advance.
Torbett said that the bill “does not change what history standards can or cannot be taught.”
However, critics of the bill–including Democratic legislators and the Durham Board of Education–have assailed it as a partisan strategy to silence teachers. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Heritage Foundation, two politically conservative organizations, helped craft the bill. As of March, forty-four states have introduced similar bills since January 2021.
On March 9, the Durham School Board passed a resolution that opposed H.B. 187. It said: “A sound education, including accurate facts about all aspects of U.S. American History, including systemic racism and discrimination, is guaranteed for every North Carolina student in our state’s Constitution.”
“I’m not gonna be changing how I teach,” said Swaim, who has taught at Riverside High School since 2015. “I feel grateful to work in a district like Durham where the whole school board is very much supportive of teaching real things, including looking at racism, sexism, and homophobia.”
Swaim teaches about a variety of topics, but she says that in order to understand history, students must recognize how race and power operate. This has become even more important at a moment when racism is a hot-button issue in America, she said.
“It’s really important for students to understand how we got to this moment, and those are hard conversations,” Swaim said.
Several of her students were taken aback by the legislation.
“It was surprising to see people advocate for literal direct censorship of what I consider to be important conversations about race,” Niko Bradley-Bull, an 11th grader and one of Swaim’s students, said in a questionnaire/survey about the bill.
Bradley-Bull said that since teachers are human, they carry natural biases. However, students can think for themselves.
Another student, 10th grader Rowan Gibney, said that legislators “are trying to control and re-write history to teach our youth a different story.”
Michelle Burton, the librarian at Spring Valley Elementary School in Durham, taught her second and third graders about Helen Keller at the beginning of March–Women’s History Month. One of her students, though, asked if they could instead learn about Harriet Tubman, an abolitionist who helped slaves escape via what was known as the Underground Railroad. Other students chirped in to agree.
Burton wonders if H.B. 187 would permit her to talk about Tubman, whose story involves violence inflicted by white people. She noted that students from various racial backgrounds want to learn about the truths of Black history. “The reason is because it’s about how a group of people have overcome, and resiliency, which inspires hope,” she said. “It’s inspirational.”
If the bill passes, Burton is almost sure she will continue to teach as she does now.
“As a librarian, we focus on intellectual freedom,” Burton said.
Opponents of the bill also allude to H.B. 69, a measure that the legislature passed in 2021 that mandates Holocaust education.
“They had no reservations, thinking that the Holocaust bill would hurt the feelings of students of German descent,” said Minister Paul Scott, a Durham activist who promotes Black history education and has spoken at several school board meetings on H.B. 187.
At the March 14 hearing, Rep. Marcia Morey (D) said that although it is “uncomfortable” to learn about the atrocities committed throughout the Holocaust, a “robust” education requires that discomfort.
“Much of our history is race related, and teaching and learning about lynching and slavery and the effects of Jim Crow laws will make students uncomfortable,” Morey said. “But a sound basic education is a full discussion of facts of racism in American history.”
Torbett responded to Moray by repeating that the bill will not change history education standards. The 9th Street Journal emailed Torbett’s office three times and his legislative assistant twice for an explanation about what he meant and what would change under the bill. We received no response.
One of the bill’s provisions draws particular concern from educators.
Educators who plan to teach materials related to the list of restricted concepts must notify the Department of Public Instruction and upload the content onto their school’s website 30 days prior to the lesson. The same rule applies when schools hire teachers or consultants who plan to discuss those concepts or have advocated for related ideas in books, published materials, or on social media.
“My concern is that they’re trying to create a level of fear in teachers who may consider doing this,” Ashley Smith, a Spanish teacher at Northern High School, said.
Smith intertwines different cultural histories into her Spanish classes, including Afro-Latina culture. She would not change how she teaches if the bill were to pass, but she worries about its ripple effect. The 30-day rule could cause teachers to fear retribution for their class material, she said.
The rule could also interfere with educators’ teaching methods, Swaim said, adding that it would make her job “impossible.” Even though she always plans general content, students regularly produce questions and feedback that alter her lessons.
“I don’t have a blueprint that’s fixed and set in stone,” Swaim said. “That’s just not how I teach.”
What’s more, teachers say they already vet their materials before sharing them. The school board has to vote on textbook adoptions, and teachers work in teams to develop lesson plans and compile materials. Burton says that legislators need to “trust” teachers instead of “police” them.
At the hearing on March 14, Rep. David Willis (R) denounced concerns over the 30-day rule as “baffling.” He said that most teachers already provide lesson plans in advance.
What’s important, he said, is accountability. Parts of this nation’s history are, indeed, “ugly.” However, teachers do not “have the right to insert their own personal beliefs over facts and history.”
“We want all politics, all of this nonsense, out of the classroom, and the biggest need our children are going to have to be successful in life going forward is the ability to think for themselves,” Willis said.
He added that anybody who “doesn’t understand that shouldn’t be in a classroom.”
Burton, who is also the president of the Durham Association of Educators and has worked in education for 28 years, accuses the North Carolina legislature of supporting the privatization of public schools. Many DPS educators, in fact, view H.B. 187 as part of a broader strategy to dismantle the public education system.
Proponents uphold their own framing of the bill: adults must protect children from a worldview that weaponizes identity to divide and indoctrinate.
“Who knows what group will rise to a prominent position to try and indoctrinate our children?” Rep. Torbett said on March 14. “We’ve seen it in history hundreds of times! This bill protects whatever group this is from soiling the minds of our kids with thoughts that don’t collectively bring us together as a group of individuals.”
As Torbett notes, history repeats itself. That’s what Swaim’s students learned as they drew connections between H.B. 187 and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
If H.B. 187 passes, teachers will have to reconcile how to contextualize a world burdened by social issues, which students recognize and seek to unpack with honesty.
Smith, the Spanish teacher, puts it this way: “Not telling the full story of something is also a way to hide the truth.”