Some 100 people — Black and white, from elementary school-aged children to adults in their 80s — filed into the Agape Perfecting Praise and Worship Center in Orlando in October. They were there for a lesson in Black history from LaVon Bracy, the director of democracy at Faith in Florida, an Orlando-based religious nonprofit. Bracy, who has a Ph.D. in education, spoke to the crowd about the forced journey enslaved Africans took from their homeland to America during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
“She’d visited Africa a couple of times and brought back soil,” Sharon Riley, a pastor at Agape, said of Bracy who, along with her granddaughters, “filled tiny vials of soil and distributed the soil at the end of the class.”
Those in attendance were engaged, with the children excitedly asking questions, Riley said.
Agape is just one of nearly 300 churches in Florida that have launched Black history lessons for their communities in recent months. From Jacksonville to Miami, Black church leaders are inviting community members — regardless of whether they attend church or are Christians — to learn about everything from the Civil Rights Movement to Juneteenth to mass incarceration. This effort is in direct response to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ statewide crusade to restrict how race and other subjects are taught in public schools and colleges. DeSantis, a Republican, blocked the teaching of Advanced Placement African American history in state high schools, signed the Stop WOKE Act in 2022 to severely limit schools from teaching race-inclusive education, and pushed new public school standards that teach that enslaved Africans benefited from slavery.
Fed up, Faith in Florida created an online toolkit with books, videos and other resources about Black history. Its goal? To push back on these Republican-led attacks on education. The toolkits include dozens of books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” and Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow”; documentaries like Ava DuVernay’s “13th” and CBS News’ “Trayvon Martin: 10 Years Later”; and videos for children like clips from the popular YouTube channel, Gracie’s Corner. The toolkit also lists national and local museums on Black history and culture across the country.
“I believe we have an opportunity to play a role in meeting a need that was created by our legislature,” Riley said. Agape holds its Black history lessons once a month and, Riley said, more and more community members are showing up or watching online. “The more we are able to educate the people we come in contact with, we can empower communities.”
Some 230 miles south, the Rev. Alphonso Jackson, executive pastor at New Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Miami, said it was a “no brainer” to join the Faith in Florida movement in the wake of attacks on education. The Miami church, whose congregation is majority Black, was founded in 1938.
He said Faith in Florida’s toolkit was the perfect resource to help guide the church’s lessons. Dozens of people of all ages piled into the church’s packed fellowship room for its first Black history lesson in November.
“There was excitement in the room,” he added. “You saw it on people’s faces. They were looking forward to the lesson. You definitely felt that as soon as you walked in.”
In the coming months, Jackson said he plans to enlist professors, historians and theologians to teach the classes. But he taught the first class, speaking with attendees about the importance of connecting their faith to Black history, and the ways faith has been integral to many Black-led movements throughout history. “Black people have always had a unique connection to God and spiritual matters,” he said.
Jackson said he feels “righteously angry” about the state’s education restrictions. That’s why, he said, it was necessary for New Shiloh to start its own formal Black history lessons. “We didn’t want the state, or any outside agency for that matter, to control our heritage,” he said.
Rhonda Thomas, executive director of Faith in Florida, said she decided to work with the organization’s researchers to put together the Black history toolkit after state Board of Education officials rebuffed her attempts to meet last year. So in July, the same month DeSantis signed a bill to quell diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives and the Board of Education established the restrictive standards on lessons about slavery, Faith in Florida launched the toolkit.
Board of Education officials did not respond to a request for comment from NBC News.
Thomas said it wasn’t difficult to get churches to join the new education effort, starting with her own. Thomas serves as reverend at New Generation Baptist Church under her husband, Ranzer Thomas Sr., who is senior pastor.
There are 391 religious organizations across the country — including Christian, Muslim, Hindu communities — that use Faith in Florida’s resources for Black history lessons, according to data by Faith in Florida. Florida churches account for 290 of those organizations.
“History has always been taught in the church in some form or fashion because history still sits in our pews. This has united the Black church in a way I have not seen since the Civil Rights Movement,” Thomas said. “We’re looking like the church we once was. That strength has always been in the Black church. They gave us a bag of lemons and Faith in Florida turned those lemons into lemonade.”
Khalil Muhammad, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ford Foundation professor of history, race and public policy, shared similar sentiments about Black communities in the United States more broadly. He said in an interview that Black people have historically prioritized teaching about their history and culture in the face of erasure and restrictions in traditional education institutions.
He cited civil rights leader Septima Clark’s work with the Highlander Folk School, a social justice-focused grassroots education center in Tennessee, in the 1950s and the Freedom Schools run by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a direct-action civil rights group largely active during the 1960s.
But Black churches have always played a central role in Black life and justice efforts in the country. Black ministers spoke out against slavery and championed abolition during the slave era. During the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War, Black churches in the North organized to establish schools, and helped former slaves find their families and acclimate to life post-slavery. Years later, churches played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement, with churches serving as meeting places to plan protests and other demonstrations. Black ministers, like Martin Luther King Jr., helped to spearhead civil rights groups like the anti-segregation Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Today, Florida’s Black churches are adding another chapter to this long history of working toward justice.
“These churches are lifting up a tradition of social justice activism that has deep roots in the Black church, and they are adjusting to the very dire reality that the Republican Party is at war with Black people,” Muhammad said. “They are tapping into a very long tradition of resistance in terms of being able to communicate history lessons that are crucial for our survival.”
The Rev. Gaston Smith, leader of Miami’s Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, founded in 1929, knows this full well. Long before Smith began leading the church, the late Rev. James E. Jenkins served as pastor beginning in the 1960s, during the Civil Rights Movement. Through the church, Jenkins championed integration and spoke out against urban renewal. Smith said the church’s current Black history lessons, usually held during its Wednesday night Bible study, are a continuation of Jenkins’ work.
“It’s part of continuing his legacy,” Smith said. “We made the decision that whenever you come to Friendship, any time during the month, you would get some form of Black history. Whether that was in a sermon, in a Sunday school lesson, whether that was in Bible study, in our announcements, we would keep Black history alive.”
Friendship Missionary was one of the first churches to join Faith in Florida’s efforts last year, and Smith has been pivotal in recruiting more churches to join the movement, according to both Smith and Thomas. Smith said he persuaded New Shiloh, St. Paul AME Church in Miami, Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Pierce, and others to hold their own Black history lessons using Faith in Florida’s toolkit.
Florida is just one of several states to implement broad education restrictions in recent years. Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama and others have all passed legislation since 2021 limiting what educators can teach about race in public schools. Republican lawmakers in several states have even moved to ban certain books that center race, gender and identity from school libraries. Dozens of churches using Faith in Florida’s resources outside of Florida are in states that have such education restrictions.
History education has long been a part of First Missionary Baptist Church’s 142-year history, said its leader, the Rev. Clifton Dollison. By joining Faith in Florida’s efforts, Dollison said the church plans to expand that work beyond its annual Heritage Day and Sunday School lessons for children.
“We’ve been doing what we can do because we recognize there is an assault against teaching our history and our heritage,” Dollison said, “and that is something we can’t allow to happen.”
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