Florida faith leader: Black history toolkit gains interest outside the state

The Rev. Rhonda Thomas attends an event at the White House. Photo courtesy Faith in Florida
The Rev. Rhonda Thomas attends an event at the White House. Photo courtesy Faith in Florida

(RNS) — When the Rev. Rhonda Thomas decided to create a toolkit to help teach Black history outside the public school system — after Florida legislators approved revisions to its required instruction — she expected Black churches like her own would be the ones to use it.

Thomas, the executive director of Faith in Florida, was correct but not entirely so: Some Florida congregations that aren’t predominantly Black are using her organization’s list of books, videos and documentaries, along with faith leaders from more than 20 other states.

What started in May as a state-focused response has attracted interest in a far wider stretch of the country than Thomas ever imagined. She hopes users of the suggested readings in the online toolkit will come away knowing more about Black history — including burnings of Black churches and massacres of Black communities that happened in her state, along with other Southern states.

Rev. Rhonda Thomas developed a black history “toolkit” to help congregations teach history where schools won’t.

“People often don’t look at Florida as even being a part of the South because they’re too busy looking at our tourism and entertainment and food,” she said in a Tuesday (Oct. 10) interview. “Florida is the South. Florida has always been impacted in ways of Southern behavior, and we have a history that needs to be shared.”

The online list includes books on slavery and slave narratives; articles on the Civil War; and documentaries, from “Eyes on the Prize” to “Trayvon Martin: 10 Years Later.” Clergy and lay people can use the resources in congregational settings such as Bible study classes for children, youth or adults, she said.

The toolkit is an extension of work Thomas has long been leading at Faith in Florida, a multiracial and multifaith coalition of congregations that work together on racial, economic and social justice issues, including mobilizing voters, welcoming immigrants and seeking reductions in poverty and gun violence. The statewide coalition is a nonpartisan affiliate of Faith in Action, a national community-organizing network.

Thomas, 63, co-pastor of New Generation Missionary Baptist Church, an independent congregation in Opa-locka, talked with Religion News Service about her development of the toolkit, her personal recollections of segregation in Florida and her coalition’s continuing plans to foster Black history instruction.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to create an alternative to teaching Black history in Florida beyond the state school system?

We realized after the passing of (the so-called “Stop Woke Act”) legislation that it was going to impact our public education system as well as some of our universities, that it would be taught in a more diluted way. So we organized congregations who would take a pledge to say we will take on the responsibility of teaching African American history from our churches because we also realized some of that history still lies within our pews.

Was there a particular part of the state legislation that caused you to want to take this action?

Just the attack on how African American history was supposed to be taught. (Legislators said they) didn’t want it to be taught because it was offending white children. I don’t think any of our educators would have taught anything in a way that offends any children. If they wanted to really look at who’s been offended, it has been Black children (who) have been offended — and I use myself — all my life. And not at one point was there anything being erased or diluted to avoid me being offended as a Black woman or Black girl.

What was your particular personal experience with aspects of Black history in your state, where you grew up?

When I think about my own growing up in Florida, Miami-Dade County in particular, I can remember my class in first grade was the first class of Black people to eat in the cafeteria. I can remember attending my dad’s company picnic. He worked at Eastern Air Lines at that time, and there were two picnics — one picnic for the Blacks, one picnic for the whites. And Virginia Key Beach was the only beach Black people could attend because Black people were not allowed to go on Miami Beach unless they were going to work as maids.

How many congregations have now pledged to use the Faith in Florida Black history toolkit?

As of now, we have over 300 congregations. And we have (people in) 22 states outside of Florida that have signed up and committed and pledged to teach African American history.

Is that more than you expected?

I was not expecting anyone out of the state of Florida. My goal was strictly Florida only because I knew we were the ones impacted by our own legislation. (Clergy from) other states began to call, email Faith in Florida to say, “We’ve heard about it. How do we get access to your toolkit? How do we register? Because we want to be a part of this teaching that is going on in Florida.” They were concerned that this can easily happen in Michigan or Pennsylvania, Arizona, Virginia. These are some of the outside states that have called us to say we want to be a part.

There are some who have committed to teaching about Black history that are leading houses of worship in your state that are not predominantly Black.

Some of our churches that are led by white clergy leaders have also signed up to teach African American history. They realized they can’t teach it like the Black church, but they can teach it in a way of accountability.

What does that say to you about that sense of interest — that it’s gone beyond Florida, and that it’s gone beyond Black churches, whether in your state or elsewhere?

When I engage in conversations with my white brothers and sisters and Muslim brothers, they just realize this is morally wrong. And if there’s one thing we have in common, it’s morals and values. And this is morally wrong for this history. African American history is still a part of American history, and it’s being threatened in a way of teaching a diluted version of it. Black people have never benefited from being slaves. Who benefits from being raped or being beaten? That’s not a benefit.

What is next in your plans related to teaching Black history in Florida or beyond it?

We’re now focusing on how do we convene all of these churches in the state of Florida, and out of the state of Florida, to have a more strategic conversation on where do we go from here. And so we’re focusing on bringing all of those that registered together early next year and just evaluate how far we’ve come, where we are and is there anything else we can do in a collective way to strengthen Black people?

Ahead of the 2020 election, your organization’s work on voter mobilization expanded beyond its traditional ties with Black churches — “Souls to the Polls”— including to synagogues and mosques. Are you finding a similar pattern with your organization’s push to educate people about Black history?

Yes, it has become a similar pattern. We have united as one. We have taken the lemons we were given and we’re turning it into lemonade. And we’re at a table of brotherly love where we realize, with all of these different faith traditions that we engage, we have more in common than what actually separates us. If we’re going to build a “beloved community” where everyone feels a sense of belonging, that means we need to talk to everyone.

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