Narrowed to grades 5-8, bill to require Black history in Tennessee classrooms makes progress

Staff file photo / State Rep. Yusuf Hakeem speaks during a picnic event hosted by the Hamilton County Democratic Party on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

NASHVILLE - After getting sidetracked last fall, state Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, believes he has a clearer path to winning approval for a revised version of his 2021 bill that requires the teaching of Black history in public schools, now focusing on grades 5-8.

"Very good," Hakeem said in an interview about the prospects for his bill after it won approval Wednesday in the House Finance Subcommittee. "The entire process has been outstanding. I've had help from both sides of the aisle and putting it in the proper form that would be acceptable to the entire [House]. I'm looking forward to getting before the [full] House and, hopefully, move this bill forward."

The bill previously cleared the House Education Instruction Subcommittee and full education committee earlier this month. Its next stop is the full House Finance Committee. If approved there, it would go to the Calendar and Rules Committee to be scheduled for a floor vote.

Last year, the bill ran into a brick wall in the House Education Instruction Subcommittee as Republicans raised multiple concerns. It was supposed to be shipped off to a summer study along with other bills.

That never happened during a session in which white GOP lawmakers raised alarms about critical race theory, a field of study in law school involving systemic racism in U.S. institutions.

Democrats protested that the theory is not taught in public schools. But Republicans proceeded to enact a law to bar teaching in K-12 classrooms that "an individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously," along with several other banned concepts.

That left the normally easy-going Hakeem upset and pointing a finger of blame at House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville. His goal, Hakeem said at the time, was to present a well-rounded history of African Americans, one that goes beyond the experience of slavery and emphasizes the major economic and cultural accomplishments of Black Americans.

Hakeem said he narrowed the bill's focus to get it moving.

"I'm going to use the term, what some people may call bells and whistles," he said. "We sort of got them off [the bill] and we tried to be very narrow and strict in what we're proposing. And so that's why it's limited to grades 5-8. Information that will be provided would be, of course, documented and monitored, that kind of thing. So I think the body, both Democrats and Republicans, thus far has found it acceptable. Last year, it was in a sense so broad that it took in so many pieces, so many different communities of study that it was perceived as being a massive amount of money that we had to put forth, and manpower and things of that nature.

"So we tried to narrow it to just deal with African American studies."

When presenting the bill in the subcommittee, Hakeem addressed colleagues about the purpose of the legislation.

"What this bill is about to is to afford a broader understanding of our American history," he said. "I guess in doing so, we have to ask a question, why do we need this bill? What we're intending to do is demonstrate the need for Black history and where it intersects with every period in American history.

Black Americans have fought in every war dating back to the American Revolution, he said.

"But probably," he told panel members, "if we canvassed our children, they have no knowledge of the participation of Black Americans in our American wars."

Examples of Blacks playing major roles in U.S. history, Hakeem said, include the Tuskegee Airmen who flew P-47 fighter planes during World War II and served as escorts for bombers flying over Italy.

He also cited George Washington Carver, a Black agricultural scientist who became famous for solutions to crop problems and his inventions. And entrepreneurs like Madame C.J. Walker, who became the first Black female millionaire in America who made her fortune in hair-care products catering to African-American women. She went on to contribute money for scholarships for women to attend Tuskegee Institute and also donated large portions of her wealth to the NAACP and other institutions.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Black Memphis Democrat who has pushed legislation to prevent people from being discriminated against for wearing their hair naturally, told Hakeem that talk of Walker got his attention.

"You know how I am about hair, the business of hair," he said.

Parkinson told colleagues that some of the people Hakeem is talking about are unknown to children and adults.

"I don't think they are controversial," Parkinson said. "I think these are good things for our children to know because as they are inspired by the feats of these individuals who have made it. Hopefully, it will inspire them to go on to greater things too."

The bill's Senate sponsor is Democratic Caucus chair Raumesh Akbari, a Black Memphis Democrat.

"Right now, state law guarantees every student access to age-appropriate, fact-based lessons about our people, contributions and culture," Akbari said in a statement to the Times Free Press. "The goal of Senate Bill 2501 is to clarify grade levels where the curriculum gets emphasis."

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.