November 28, 2023

Rhonda Thomas: Accurately teaching history is a moral issue

Students at a youth march for integrated schools rally, Oct. 25, 1958, in Washington, D.C.

Photo from the National Archives, Records of the National Park Service

Legislation limiting what can be taught in public schools fueled a Florida nonprofit’s decision to develop a Black history toolkit for faith communities.

The Rev. Rhonda Thomas already had plenty on her plate as executive director of Faith in Florida.

Her organization, which falls under the national umbrella of Faith in Action, worked on issues of discrimination and disenfranchisement across a broad swath of the state. There was plenty going on before legislation was passed limiting what can be taught, said or read in the state’s K-12 public schools, as well as in its colleges and universities. The consequences have extended nationally to the College Board and beyond.

In Florida, Thomas and others have led a countermovement that has mobilized faith communities to teach what the public schools cannot. Faith in Florida has launched a multipart toolkit focused on topics like race, racism and whiteness, and Black women in leadership, centering faith communities as critical to providing accurate information and anti-racist formation.

Thomas spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Aleta Payne about the effort, which has broadened to other states. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: Could you talk a bit about Faith in Florida?

Thomas portrait

Rhonda Thomas: We fall under the umbrella of our national [network], which is Faith in Action, and we organize in 41 counties in the state of Florida — multiracial, multifaith leaders working around racial, social and economic justice. We have [statewide] campaigns that we organize, which are immigration, reducing gun violence and mass incarceration, and protecting democracy.

In those counties, we also have our local issues we organize around, whether it be public education, housing, living wages, that sort of thing. That’s who Faith in Florida is. It’s a faith-based organization that just cares about people that are impacted by all sorts of [issues], whether it be legislation, those who have been disenfranchised, those who have been discriminated against — really, really caring about marginalized communities and people in general.

Many people don’t really see Florida as being the South, unfortunately. I don’t know if they get caught up in the tourism or the beaches, the entertainment, the food, but we’re very much the South and as impacted as many other Southern states when it comes to this fight that we’re in.

F&L: How and why did you come to develop the pledge and toolkit around teaching Black history?

RT: We realized that there was an attack on public education as well as our universities on how African American history was being taught in the curriculum and that it was recommended and legislated that it be taught in a watered-down version, implying things that were not true, such as Black people benefited from being slaves.

Faith in Florida decided to do what we do, and that’s organize — organize our faith leaders and see if they will commit to teaching African American history in its realness. You cannot water down history. It is history. I felt personally that our educators were professional enough, whether it be from a public school system or from a university, that they would teach African American history in a way that it was not targeted to offend any race. It would be taught in a professional way through a curriculum that was created.

We felt like, “We’ll take it back to where it originated.” And that’s the Black church, because that history still sits in our pews. That history is still real, and it’s alive. We have always taught our history, maybe not through a curriculum, but we’ve taught it in living color.

I asked my research coordinator to create a team within our staff where we would be able to have resources, whether books or documentaries, that would give our churches the liberty to choose from the toolkit, understanding that we were creating a toolkit that will offer a variety of resources that they can choose from that can fit their own congregations.

It also is a toolkit that will be able to accommodate all ages of people, whether it is children, adults, whether they’re in the church or visiting or never attend but care about the teachings of Black history.

That’s where it all came from. Horrible legislation that came through the state of Florida. We saw where it was not right in the lenses of Black people. The toolkit also gave our faith leaders the liberation to teach it, because the Black church has always been and still is very creative in the way we teach.

It could be taught through biblical lenses, and it could be taught through art, through dance, through music, because that’s just who we’re made up of. Because we organized multiracial, multifaith leaders and congregations, then some of our white churches and mosques, they were like, “We see this is morally wrong. We understand that we may not be able to teach Black history like the Black church can, but we can teach it in a way of accountability.” And that came from our white congregations and white faith leaders. Our Muslim [leaders] understood that we have more in common than what separates us in the way we connect together as a whole. They were willing to teach Black history as well, but still understanding that no one can do it like the Black church can.

F&L: You see this as a moral issue that extends beyond Black Christians.

RT: Yes. We had an open discussion through one of our statewide clergy calls. To try to erase or water down [anyone’s history], to be watered down in a version where it does not represent the truth — it’s morally wrong.

And then Black history itself, recognizing that if we’re not deliberately teaching it in the right form, it also opens [the possibility of] history being repeated, which I do see happening in this country, and definitely in the state of Florida. It’s being repeated. We look at it in the way of how voter suppression still exists. Black people no longer have to go to the supervisor of elections office to guess how many jelly beans are in a jar; now our voting rights are being oppressed and suppressed in the way of [formerly incarcerated] citizens not having the opportunity to register to vote once they’ve served their time in the state of Florida.

F&L: While you started this curriculum for Florida, you have had enough interest from outside the state that there is an effort to broaden it.

RT: My goal was strictly the state of Florida and how do I get 500 congregations to take the pledge to teach African American history. Twenty-eight other states have now joined Faith in Florida under our leadership and are using our toolkit in teaching Black history — 28 states. That was not my goal or vision, but unfortunately, states all across this country were [thinking that] what happens in Florida can possibly happen in their states.

F&L: What do you hope other faith leaders in those states might take from this effort? What do you hope they might take forward?

RT: What has happened here has united faith leaders of many denominations. It has united us under one umbrella to see the importance of Black history being taught. I say it’s being taught raw and being taught real. It is not being taught in a way to offend anyone. If we want to talk about being offended — Black people, we have been offended since the beginning of time. As a Black woman, I would never want to teach anything that would offend others, because I know what that feels like. Seeing the importance of Black history being taught in its own authentic way, we’re uniting communities as well in a faith space, and then also recognizing that we’re operating in the power and the authority that God has given us.

F&L: Is there anything else you want people to know about this work?

RT: This work is great. This work is good, and it’s worth it. You have not asked me whether there has been any resistance. One of our churches has received a bomb threat that came through the police department. Some of our churches are getting called: “Why are you doing this?”

In my church, we have a safety plan in place, even to the point of having active shooter trainings. It’s just unfortunate that this is the way we are looking at how we protect not just the Black church.

Like I said, we organize multiracial, multifaith. There are threats not just on the Black church. Our Jewish community, they’ve gotten threats as well in the synagogues. Our mosques are getting threats. So it also takes us to a place that we have more in common than what separates us when it comes to the faith community.

I don’t think that’s ordained by God, based on my faith tradition, that we should be worshipping in a way that we need to protect ourselves and not be able to worship. Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But this is the time we’re living in.