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Handling Racism: Learn the History

Our mission at News-O-Matic goes well beyond sharing daily news for kids. We seek to inspire the next generation to grow into empathetic, responsible global citizens with respect for people of all backgrounds. That means having honest conversations — however difficult — about race in America.  “Learn the History” is the fourth article in our “Handling Racism” series, a resource that teachers and parents can use to facilitate these conversations with kids.

America is in protest. Across the country, millions of people are marching down city streets. They are carrying signs. And they are chanting the names of black men and women who have been killed by the police. These Americans are angry about the issue of racism — and they want a change.

This may seem like a sudden shift to you. However, the call for action is rooted in a long history. In fact, black people in America have been treated unfairly for more than 400 years. If you want to understand what is happening today, you need to look back to the past.

The first black people in the Americas didn’t choose to move there. They were taken from their homes in Africa. White people packed them on ships and sailed them across the Atlantic Ocean. The black men and women were sold into slavery like pieces of property. This began as early as 1526.

One ship carried about 20 slaves to Jamestown, Virginia, in August 1619. Over the next 250 years, white people stole hundreds of thousands of black men and women from Africa. Slave owners used them to do free labor on the land, such as picking cotton or farming rice. This helped make white landowners rich.

In 1776, the United States declared its independence from Britain. About 5,000 black soldiers and sailors fought alongside white soldiers and sailors in the Revolutionary War to make America free. The United States became founded on the idea that “all men are created equal.” But even after the United States became its own country, slavery continued across the South. Black slaves kept working without any rights. This was legal in the nation for nearly another century.

Slavery finally ended in the United States after the Civil War in 1865. About 4 million slaves were freed at last. Soon they became U.S. citizens, and black men could vote. Still, the former slaves were never treated equally. Laws forced them to live in separate places. Other laws made it hard for them to vote. Black children had to attend worse schools — often in broken-down buildings, without as many books and supplies as white schools had.

Black Americans were officially free — but they still suffered from inequality. Candra Flanagan works at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. “The unfree status of people would become baked into the laws of the country,” she explained, “as well as individuals’ feelings and reactions.”

By the mid-1950s, black Americans began a new movement for their civil rights. They began to protest against the unfair laws of their country. For example, one law said black people had to give up their seats at the front of a bus for white passengers. In 1955, a black woman named Rosa Parks stood up for her rights — by staying seated.

This civil rights movement continued into the 1960s. Black and white Americans took to the streets in the fight for equality. About 250,000 Americans came together for the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Martin Luther King Jr. led the historic rally in the nation’s capital. That is where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Those protests worked. Thanks to the large support of Americans, the U.S. government changed some of its laws. New rules made it easier for black people to vote. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation in public spaces. It also made discrimination in the workplace against the law.

Now in the 2020s, there is still racism in the United States. Discrimination still exists in many ways. For example, there are nearly five times as many white Americans as black Americans, yet there are more black people in prison. And black Americans are more than twice as likely to be killed by police — including George Floyd last week. Floyd’s death led to the start of America’s recent protests.

Menika Dirkson is a historian who studies race. She said Americans need to study their country’s past. “You can’t ignore racism,” she told News-O-Matic. “There’s a history of slavery and segregation,” she added. “You must say that what we did in the past as a nation was wrong.”

Dirkson believes we must learn from our history to move forward. But how? “We all have to acknowledge each other,” she answered. That means making sure we “respect each other, embrace each other’s differences, and learn about each other,” Dirkson explained. “We will be more accepting,” she added, “and we won’t fight each other.”


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