A conversation about “Teaching Black History to White People” by Leonard N. Moore

Teaching Black History to White People (University of Texas Press, 2021) by Leonard N. Moore is an important book that joins the ranks of Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, Henry Lewis Gates’s Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, and James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me in assuring that all of American history is preserved and taught. Moore’s book is relatively short—a mere 184 pages—but it lays out in plain language and engaging anecdotes a survey of Black history and why all Americans need to understand it. The book ends with an excellent course outline for teaching Black history.

Moore is the George Littlefield Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin and a graduate of Jackson State University. He is the author of three books on Black politics, the most recent being The Defeat of Black Power: Civil Rights and the National Black Political Convention of 1972. His latest book is an excellent choice for starting that conversation this country needs to have about race.

Leonard N. Moore

Teaching Black History to White People seems especially important and timely today as some states are trying to eliminate or reduce what Black history can be taught. Elementary school texts, for example, removed any mention of Rosa Parks’ skin color and simply said she was asked to give up her seat on a bus. AP Black History was banned from Florida schools, as was any discussion that might make a student feel uncomfortable about his skin color or gender.




Phyllis Wilson Moore and Donna Meredith discuss “Teaching Black History to White People” by Leonard N. Moore

DM: Let’s start with something we learned from the book that we didn’t know before reading it.

Phyllis Wilson Moore

PWM: As a White person, and a believer in peace and equality, I find Teaching Black History to White People an important study of the failures of reconstruction and the subsequent political maneuvering.

Things I learned: those opposing the freedom of the enslaved returned to power after Reconstruction and enacted rules, laws and requirements to ensure formerly enslaved persons could not own land, vote, earn a substantial wage, be treated with respect, get an equal education, find reasonable housing, marry outside racial lines, borrow money, or obtain a job with potential.

The most surprising to me was the Grandfather Clause. Enacted in the South after the Civil War, it ensured citizens could not vote if their grandfather had not voted. This ruled out the vote of those just freed from enslavement. If you don’t know why and when the Grandfather Clause originated, you will know when you finished this book. The clause is one example of the way the post-Civil-War White power structure methodically set about blocking equal rights to our Black citizens.

I learned the ways Blacks were kept in debt by sharecropper policies, and the many ways devised to prevent them from getting ahead through land ownership and housing policies. It basically was a no-win situation for Black citizens. And the results are with us today.

I knew Reconstruction’s failure led to Jim Crow Laws, but I did not have this comprehensive view of the laws enacted and the steps taken to subjugate our Black citizens. This is a truly important book.

Donna Meredith

DM: I knew about redlining (the restrictions placed on Blacks and other minorities as to what neighborhoods they could buy or rent homes) but I hadn’t considered that Blacks were also not eligible for the same VA and FHA loans that put so many middle-class White families into home ownership for the first time. Blacks were paying taxes, yet only Whites received the benefits of these government loans. And once the loans and schools did become available for Blacks, suddenly many White Americans were opposed to Big Government for the first time. As Moore writes, “Taxes only became a problem when governmental policies, programs, and initiatives were not exclusively used for white people.”

Another thing I learned concerned the Great Migration. I hadn’t considered the dilemma of Black business owners and pastors who had to figure out what to do when their clientele left. Either they had to convince people to stay in the South because that was the source of their business, or they had to close their business and join the exodus. It would be hard to give up your business and start over.

Moore also does a great job of explaining all the different factions in the movement for equality, like the Black Panthers, who formed to combat police brutality, and the Nation of Islam. I knew very little about the Nation of Islam. Moore explained their theology is a mixture of traditional Islam, the Bible, the teachings of Marcus Garvey, Freemasonry, and the teachings of Noble Drew Ali. Even though I lived through the times when these organizations and movements rose up, I didn’t really understand them. One thing that shocked me was Moore’s assertion that many Blacks didn’t approve of Martin Luther King until after his death. They felt he was “messing things up.”

PWM: Professor Moore includes one of his “I.Q” quizzes (written in the Black vernacular)   to demonstrate  a pitfall in standardized testing. He forms questions around Black culture that might be unknown to Whites. Typically the White students get the majority of the answers wrong while Black students ace the test.

Brilliance may be in the eye of the beholder, but I consider Moore’s analogy using “Racial Monopoly” brilliant. It is a truthful and easy-to-understand explanation of how our nation’s past led us to our present predicament.

DM: I liked the Monopoly game example he used, too. Here is a bit of what he said:

When people make references to overt racism being a thing of the past, I remind them that the present is a product of the past, and I use the game of Monopoly to provide a clear illustration. . . . You are Black and are invited to a game of Monopoly with your white friends. As the banker is passing out the money, you realize everyone else has gotten $1,500 but you only received $800.  . . . You then pick a piece as your friend goes over the rules, reminding everyone that the goal is to acquire property, build on those properties, and then bankrupt your opponents.  . . . You are told you cannot buy any property until you roll for the twentieth time. You’ve played Monopoly since you were a kid, and this rule sounds strange. You dispute it, but again they say, “It’s in the rules.” You look in the rules and there it is: Black people cannot buy any property until they roll for the twentieth time, but they must pay rent and taxes and can go to jail.

You still participate despite the unfair rules. When you finally get to your twentieth roll of the dice, you are excited. “I can finally buy property and make some money.” But you notice all the properties have been bought. And no matter how hard you roll the dice, no matter how smart you are, no matter how good your negotiating skills are, you will never be able to compete. You are in a position of perpetual indebtedness, and there is nothing you can do about it. As you sit there and come to the realization that the game was structured for white people to win, someone says, “How come you don’t have any property? You must be lazy, you must not want to work, you must want a handout.”

. . . This is why African American history should be a graduation requirement in every high school, college, or university in America. Every. Single. One.

I am convinced that if we teach Black history in high school, then the racial divide won’t be so profound.

PWM: Imagine playing racial Monopoly. It is the Monopoly you know but the rules are different for Black players. For two pages Moore illustrates racial injustices with his brilliant racial Monopoly analogy.   There are no forty acres and no mule. Those two pages are worth the price of the book.

DSM:  So true. The professor helps us see how all the rules have been different throughout our history for Blacks. Moore writes that “we need you to see color. And that doesn’t mean you treat people unfairly; treat everyone fairly but recognize that some people’s historical and present-day experiences make it impossible to treat everyone the same.” The more I have learned about Black history, the more I’ve come to realize how true that statement is. Because I grew up during the 60s and witnessed the civil rights movement on news broadcasts, I naively thought this country was solving most of its race problems. Surely hindering people’s voting rights, housing choices, and educational opportunities were in the past. Surely, the Age of Aquarius the Fifth Dimension popularized in song was coming about and we would all love each other. Sadly, I was wrong. There is such a surge today in policies that openly aim to undermine equality.

PWM: Reading this book brought back some of my own school memories. My high school experience was in an “integrated” school in a small Pennsylvania town. It was legally integrated but Black students were basically ignored. They seemed to disappear at sundown. For them, there was no formal dancing, swimming, party going, church going, cheerleading, etc., with White students.

When integration became nationwide, I understood its importance but knew how much the Black community would lose.

DM: You had seen what Black students had lost in your own school, and realized similar losses would happen nationwide. Integration caused the death of Black businesses in all-Black communities. It changed the autonomy and equality of the social lives of Black students such as not having Black Homecoming queens or Prom queens. One Black majority school I taught in tried to address the race issue by having both a Black and a White queen. One school where I taught where Blacks were a minority started specifying that there would be at least one Black majorette position.

PWM: In my opinion, the Black community has never recovered from integration.

DM: Unlike in your school, in my high school Blacks were able to participate in extra-curricular activities like prom, sports, and Tri-Hi-Y. But recently I have begun to recall racist indoctrination in my all-White grade school. In first grade we learned to sing “Jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton / Jump down, turn around, pick a bale of hay / Oh lordy, pick a bale of cotton / Oh lordy, pick a bale of hay.” We had hand motions and were on our feet dancing and jumping around, which was supposed to mimic the cheerful slaves. I also learned “Way Down Upon the Suwannee River,” “Old Black Joe,” and “Dixie.” Now I cringe to think we were taught those songs. By middle school, we quietly integrated and I don’t recall any further instruction that felt racist. Certainly just the opposite in high school where we read such books as Black Like Me and Huckleberry Finn that tried to counter racism.

As a former teacher, I was surprised to learn from Moore’s book that Black parents were not particularly in favor of the integration brought about through Brown v. Board of Education, largely because of the lack of Black teachers in integrated schools. They favored better educational opportunities, yes, but not White teachers for their children. Moore writes that “Black parents realized that white teachers could not help a Black kid holistically . . . and were also clear in that they wanted educators who could prepare their children to thrive in a society that was often unwelcoming to them.” I taught many Black teens over the years and did my best with them, but I did sometimes worry that there were aspects of their lives out of my reach and understanding. In the English departments where I taught, teachers incorporated Black authors and history, but some in the social studies department were still teaching that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights—no mention that the right states demanded was to own other human beings if they had black skin.

Professor Moore ends the book with a brilliant stroke. He offers seven things White liberals can do to make race relations better. His suggestions left me with much to think about, such as recognizing my own biases, avoiding stereotypes, and asking Black neighbors what I can help them fight for.

PWM: This book, and Moore’s work at the University of Texas in Austin, gives me hope.

DM: Thanks for recommending Teaching Black History to White People to me, Phyllis, and for sharing your thoughts on it. I wish all teachers, legislators, and citizens across our country would read it.

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