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Gov. Ron DeSantis has faced criticism over his decision to reject an Advanced Placement course on African American studies to be taught in Florida high schools. February is Black History Month, and we asked educators, historians, and community members to weigh in on why teaching the full scope of history is more important than ever. We’re sharing what they had to say, in their own words.

Growing up in Harriet Tubman's hometown, much went unsaid about racial strife

Rick Hughes wears a light color dress shirt and sits near a mic in the Sarasota WUSF studio
Kerry Sheridan / WUSF Public Media
Rick Hughes says he lived through a period of racial turmoil, but wasn't taught to understand it in school.

"We can't learn from the past if we don't even acknowledge that it existed."

During Black History Month, WUSF is airing the voices of people in our community who lived through significant events that shaped their lives.

Today we hear from Rick Hughes, a realtor in Sarasota, who is originally from the eastern shore of Maryland.

"Dorchester County, Maryland was where Harriet Tubman was born, enslaved and started the Underground Railroad. And 15 miles away is where Frederick Douglass was born and raised and ultimately moved on.

"But even though we were there in the throes of it, we didn't get it as an education. It was something that was either discounted as non-factual or unimportant.

"Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass — Douglass, more so because of his writings. But Harriet Tubman was kind of a footnote. And I remember frequently hearing people say, 'We don't believe that she really did the things that, you know, she's credited with doing,' but based on no factual information whatsoever.

"I was born in 1960. So in the early '60s is when most of this started hitting the fan. And then, of course, the famous 1968 year of the riots throughout the country.

"H. Rap Brown was there speaking and he was shot, actually, while there. A portion of the courthouse was blown up. I mean, to be a little kid and have the National Guard armed to the street, you noticed it, but it was never discussed.

"And then that's where the history kind of separates. If you were to ask a white person from that area, typically, what happened back then it was that the Blacks were agitating and burned down their own section of town.

"Whereas if you speak with the Blacks that were involved, it was a fire started, and the white fire chief would not allow the fire trucks to go into town to squash the fire.

"Ultimately, Robert Kennedy was asked to come in, he actually mediated a ceasefire, if you will, and created the Treaty of Cambridge, Maryland, to stop it.

"You cannot escape racism, or racist comments or racist actions in that area. And yet, either you're a believer in historical facts, or it's hysterical fiction, because they've each grown up with their own idea of what actually happened. There was never discussion of this in school. And I was a history minor in college. And even then, we didn't really discuss it.

"One interesting thing is, as a little white kid growing up there, there was this place called Spring Valley. And it was this little teeny valley, which we thought was huge at the time. You'd take your sled and ride down it when you got a half an inch of snow. As an adult, you go back in, it's a divot. But in the center of it was a brick podium, or stage, let's call it, that's where little white kids would go to sit on Santa's lap.

"For the little Black kids, because they weren't there when we were there, for little Black kids and their family, that's where slave auctions were held. That's where a hanging took place. So I mean, it was a tale of two cities. And yet we didn't discuss it.

"We can't learn from the past if we don't even acknowledge that it existed.

"I've long said that white privilege is a real thing. Somebody may be downtrodden, no matter what their race. But I know as a white guy growing up in the 60s, that I was always two phone calls away from getting out of any mischief that I got into. And I was given the benefit of the doubt.

"One of my good friends here in Sarasota, grew up in South Africa. She's white, and she grew up in apartheid. And yet, she's like me, she has her eyes open to this and understands it and has sympathy and empathy. And yet her siblings were absolutely part of the apartheid mindset.

"And that's similar to growing up in Cambridge, Maryland. It's like, how did some of us have eyes open and understand what was going on and others completely disregard it and want to just completely forget it? I mean, white-washing could not be a better term."

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
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