Students sat huddled in groups in a classroom at Aurora’s Overland High School, going through folders filled with their assignments for that November morning.
In one of those folders, they found a poem by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper that was published in 1854. As Gloria Ansah’s group read “The Slave Auction,” the 17-year-old was struck by two verses:
“And mothers stood with streaming eyes,
And saw their dearest children sold…”
Ansah, a senior, and her peers had to answer questions on a worksheet about the poem, including one that asked why people enslaved in the United States were separated from their families.
“If they keep families together they have a stronger bond,” Ansah told the group, adding, “If I got taken away by force that would be really sad.”
The students in the Overland classroom that day are part of a pilot program at 60 schools across the nation to teach Advanced Placement African American Studies. The program was launched by the College Board at the start of the 2022-23 academic year and Overland is the only participating school in Colorado. .
The class is “designed to offer high school students an evidence-based introduction to African American studies” and is multidisciplinary, drawing on literature, the arts, humanities, political science, geography, and science, the College Board said in a statement.
AP classes are higher-level courses that offer students the chance to earn college credit while still in high school by taking an exam run by the College Board at the conclusion of the class.
The AP African American Studies class has been in the works for about a decade and the pilot program is slated to expand to hundreds of more high schools in the 2023-24 school year, according to the College Board. It’ll be offered at all high schools interested in the course beginning in 2024-25, and the first AP African American Studies exams will be given in spring 2025.
For the pilot program, the College Board sought out schools where the course would do well and the student population was diverse, said Nathan Umetsu, who teaches AP African American Studies at Overland.
Overland serves mostly students of color. Of the 2,107 pupils that attend, almost a third are Black students, 41% are Hispanic students and 18% are white students, according to the Cherry Creek School District.
Thirty students are enrolled in AP African American Studies, which is only offered to seniors.
The piloting of the course nationwide comes as some states are trying to restrict the teaching of history, particularly as it relates to race, racism and gender identity. As of August, legislators in at least 36 states had introduced more than 137 bills to restrict what is taught in classrooms, according to a report by PEN America, which advocates for free expression.
In Colorado, references to historical contributions of people of color and those in the LGBTQ community were at one point stripped from proposed revisions to the state’s social studies standards this year. However, the Colorado State Board of Education ultimately voted last month to add them back into the guidelines, which teachers use to draft curriculum.
“Society is just so driven by different opinions that this is an interesting course at this time,” Umetsu said, adding, “It’s a little scary with all of the different conversations going on.”
Primary sources and competing views
The class covers centuries of history, starting in roughly the 1500s with lessons about early African empires and societies before moving on to the forced migration of Africans to the U.S. and slavery. When the course ends in the spring, it will wrap up with the civil rights movement in the 1960s and with discussions about Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and inequality in America, he said.
The class curriculum is supported by primary sources, such as the Frances Ellen Watkins Harper poem, and students are expected to consider competing views that “draw that rigorous discussion inside the classroom,” Umetsu said.
“Here are some things that we don’t really get to teach that much or often in social studies because we are driven by curriculum,” he said.
For the students enrolled in AP African American Studies, that’s the reason why the class is so important, according to those who spoke to The Denver Post.
“Other classes are too scared to get into racism or race,” said 18-year-old Adiel Weldu.
Among the documents Ansah, Weldu, and their group read that day in November included a list of laws passed in the late 1600s and early 1700s in colonial Virginia to control enslaved people.
It was mostly a list of things that Black people, whether enslaved or free, could not do.
For example, enslaved people were restricted from meeting in gatherings, including funerals. They also could not serve in the militia and they were denied the right to a jury trial for capital offenses, according to the document.
They could, however, legally be killed if they resisted capture while fleeing for their freedom, according to a 1680 law.
Baptism did not free an enslaved person. Any white person married to a Black person was “banished.” And all Black people — both free and enslaved — were denied the right to testify as witnesses in court cases, according to the document.
“We were never taught these,” Weldu said.
“This was the first time we’ve seen these laws,” Ansah added.
Digging deeper into history
The students said what makes the AP African American Studies class different from others they’ve taken is that it delves deeper into history in a way their previous classes didn’t. Sure, they said, they’ve learned about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and the slave trade.
But now, they’re learning about the actual people who were enslaved, not just slavery as a system, by studying writings, recollections and photos from that period of U.S. history.
“Not every slave is the same,” said 17-year-old Cesar Villatoro. “They all have different stories.”
What really brought this to the forefront for Ansah and her classmates was a photo of an enslaved person with marks etched into his back from repeated beatings.
The photo, of an escaped enslaved man named Peter, was “one of the most widely circulated images of slavery of its time, galvanizing public opinion and serving as a wordless indictment of the institution of slavery,” according to History.com.
Other history classes “never went in-depth on the brutality” of slavery, Weldu said while looking at the photo. “I feel like a dog would be treated better than this.”
“Being in this class made me realize how much I didn’t know,” she said.
Umetsu, their teacher, has realized too that his students are learning new things about a major moment in American history.
“We think students know this and it’s actually far from the case,” he said.
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