Marking and Whitewashing Black History in Pennsylvania

As Black History Month comes to a close, a threat to teaching African American history is looming in Pennsylvania. In the last session of the Pennsylvania legislature, a conservative lawmaker introduced the Teaching Racial and Universal Equality Act which would limit how teachers discuss racism and sexism, and ban schools from hosting speakers who advocate “racist or sexist concepts.” Republican State Rep. Russ Diamond said his bill is “aimed at curtailing the divisive nature of concepts more commonly known as ‘critical race theory’.” Diamond likely cannot spell “CRT.” Critical race theory is an academic framework for examining how racism is embedded in law, public policy and institutions.

Not to be outdone, Republican State Rep. Parke Wentling, one of four state lawmakers on the 12-member Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, wants to privatize the state agency’s historical marker program which recognizes people, places and events that have statewide or national significance. In a 2021 op-ed Wentling wrote:

Rather than have the official arm of the state be the arbiter of history, perhaps it is time for the commission to get out of the marker business entirely and find a way to privatize our historical recognitions.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s blue and gold historical markers are public history lessons. For many Americans, the markers are their only exposure to African American history and culture.

In a recent op-ed published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, I wrote:

For only the second time in its history, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum announced in November that it was “temporarily pausing” the program because of “ongoing supply chain issues” affecting the production of the iconic blue-and-gold markers. I contacted the agency this week to check on the program’s status; spokesperson Howard Pollman told me, “There is no timetable as to when the temporary hiatus will be lifted.”

To me, the open-ended suspension — coupled with the vague language in the November announcement that the agency “will be reviewing the marker program in the interest of continuous improvement” — raises a red flag.

I believe Wentling’s screed is of a piece with a bill introduced in the last session by Republican State Rep. Russ Diamond, which seeks to prevent our schools from teaching “critical race theory.” Some politicians want to erase the progress made in telling a more inclusive American story by attacking a conceptual framework for the teaching of Black history. I fear these culture wars will escalate as the 2024 presidential election heats up.

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