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RPS Plans Launch Of New ‘REAL Richmond’ History Class

Monument photo
Richmond public schools are introducing a new elective history class highlighting the often overlooked stories of marginalized groups. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Richmond Public Schools is rolling out a new history elective class this coming fall – called REAL Richmond. It will highlight the often untold history of marginalized groups in the city.

“We might talk about when Civil War battles came into the city of Richmond, the burning of the city,” said Ma’Asehyahu Isra-Ul, the district’s specialist for history instruction, who has been developing the course, and training other RPS teachers this summer. “We may talk about how the 95 highway system was created and plowed directly through flourishing Black neighborhoods.”

Isra-Ul says Ben Campbell’s book Unhealed History will serve as a core text for the class, among other primary documents like issues detailed in the Richmond Planet newspaper that tell the truth about many untold stories of the city’s past, and people who are often overlooked, like John Mitchell, Maggie Walker, and Carter G. Woodson.

“We’re presenting them [students] the information, the documents that tell the truth about Richmond’s past. And then from there, they think about ways in which they can make the world better starting with this city,” Isra-Ul said. “We hope that these foundational pieces of information we give students light and kindle a fire in them to want to now go and ask more questions and learn more.”

Isra-Ul has been leading “historical lens” teacher sessions with Richmond teachers starting in March and throughout the summer, preparing them to teach the course. The last session for the summer was held Thursday, in which teachers discussed the importance of terminology “enslaved people” instead of “African American slaves.”

“When we say enslaved it causes you to ask, ‘Who did it? And why?’” Isra-Ul said.

They also analyzed common ways Christopher Columbus is often presented to children, including the popular “In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue” rhyme. Often ignored is his refusal to baptize native residents, to leave them “soulless” so he could enslave them. He was charged with cruelty and mismanagement, as detailed in the book Heartbeat Of Wounded Knee.

“You present the facts of the individual and have students answer the question: hero or villain?” Isra-Ul said.

Teachers like Kieasha King appreciated the way the class is structured, especially its focus on engaging students and asking them to make judgments about historical figures after considering all of the facts of their lives.

“I think it’s a great way for students to really own their learning,”  King said. “My hope is that it’s not just trending.”

The class is designed to be an inquiry and exploration-based class, and Isra-Ul says the classes will end with a capstone project, where students come up with their own solutions to solve problems in the community.

Isra-Ul says while the elective will be open to all high school grade levels, content will be geared towards 11th and 12th graders. The course will be offered at Thomas Jefferson, Huguenot, John Marshall and Open High schools and expanded to every high school the following year. 

“We have never done this before and there is a lot of heavy content for the teachers and students,” Isra-Ul said.