Nelva Williamson: Educator Reflection

Since 2020, the Zinn Education Project has hosted hundreds of Teaching for Black Lives Study Groups. Each study group receives copies of Teaching for Black Lives and a Rethinking Schools subscription for each participant, a year-long menu of workshops and seminars to choose from, and access to a network of social justice teachers across the United States. 

In 2021, participants in the Teaching for Black Lives campaign — study groups, online classes, and/or Teach Truth Day of Action — were interviewed to reflect on their experience.

Nelva Williamson, a high school social studies teacher in Houston, Texas, and a 41-year veteran teacher who loves teaching history. Listen to an excerpt of her interview below.

Full Interview Transcript

Talk to us about the Teach the Black Freedom Struggle online historian classes.

The whole series of classes for Teach the Black Freedom Struggle has really caused me to want to add more to my history courses to help my students to understand how and what the impact of African Americans was and is in history, and that it goes beyond what is in our textbook.

I started attending those classes during the pandemic. I went to one that was about teaching Reconstruction, and at the time I was actually teaching Reconstruction in my history class. Unfortunately, most of the textbooks and resources that I had available did not go in-depth the way that I wanted to. They kind of just brushed over the Reconstruction period, kind of making it seem as if it was not important. Many history books that are used in public K–12 classrooms  just always say that Reconstruction was simply a failure and they go on from there.

But I know from my own family history that Reconstruction was not a failure — that there were thousands of people who took advantage of the different resources available to them, and they were able to go forward and create generational changes in their family as families moved from slavery to freedom.

So that got me started. They were so interesting, each course was different, the historians were wonderful, the resources were great that the Zinn Education Project was putting together. I just kind of got, I don’t want to say addicted, but that’s kind of what it was. And I just continued with several others of the courses and even became a facilitator.

Speak specifically about how Reconstruction was a part of that curriculum and how you saw the differences in what was being taught versus what the Zinn Education Project provided.

When I got to the unit that I usually teach on Reconstruction, I realized that I was lacking some resources and also a different perspective in our K–12 curriculum. We teach Reconstruction and it often is stated as a failure, but through Teaching for Black Lives I realized that there was much more. I’d always known there was much more, but this gave me the resources that I needed to add to what I was giving to my students and to change my trajectory, so to speak, of how I would approach it, and that Reconstruction was and is a positive in U.S. history.

Do you want to talk to us about the Clint Smith session?

The Clint Smith session that I went to was just fabulous. It was awesome. Clint Smith’s book, How the Word Is Passed, is beautifully written, for one thing, but also it spoke to me as a historian, as a teacher, as a person who loves to travel to historical sites, and also trying to get to not just the the veneer of what is going on in the location, but to go a little bit more in-depth. That’s really what Dr. Smith did with his book. It brings out a lot of different perspectives that I know my students would appreciate, and I am going to use that as a curriculum resource for this upcoming school year.

It is so beautifully written. It takes my breath away. I recommend it to every single historian and history teacher that I meet. They have got to read that book. It puts such a different spin and a different perspective on these historic places and what is told, what is not told, and you get to the why as well.

Is there a story from your classroom that you want to share about Teach the Black Freedom Struggle or Teaching for Black Lives, about your students or classroom?

I teach at an all-girls school here in Houston and what I really try to do is to infuse a lot of feminist history into my classroom, as well as teach to the students that I have. Our school is a majority-minority school. So I teach Black and Brown young ladies, and I want them to see themselves represented in history, not just through enslavement, but that overcoming of enslavement, that empowerment on the feminine side, as well as on the side of being Black and Brown. These classes helped me to do that, helped me to see and gain a different perspective that I was able to pass on to my students. So, that’s why I feel that this is important for any teacher who is looking for new and different resources to attend these sessions. They’ll be ongoing for this upcoming school year as well.

I was wondering if you might speak to that familial experience that had taught you a different history than what was available.

From my family perspective, I was born in Texas, but I didn’t live here for a very long time. I was two weeks old when I moved to South Carolina, because my dad went to Korea. But being here in Houston for 41 years, I have thoroughly learned the history of Juneteenth. I taught in the fourth ward, which was the founding of the freed slave, called Freedmen’s Town section, of Houston, and that has been something that’s been very important to me.

But in regards to Reconstruction and how it affected my family — because of course I am the descendant of formerly enslaved people — in South Carolina where my family is from, my great-grandfather was the first Black man to register to vote in Williamsburg County, South Carolina. My great-grandfather, London Williams, also founded a school, Morris College, in Sumter, South Carolina. He was able to do that through having benefited from his father’s being in touch with the Freedmen’s Bureau. So I know that there were, as I said, hundreds or thousands of people who benefited from the Freedmen’s Bureau through Reconstruction and the Republican laws that were at that time created to help advance Black people.

So to me it’s not a failure. The failure comes through the government entities, not in the personal and private stories of families that were able to move forward and build legacies and to build generational wealth in spite of what came next after Reconstruction — Jim Crow laws. 

Although I’ve been teaching for 41 years, my mother, who is my she-ro, taught for 52 years, and I don’t think I’m going to try to match her. This is going to be my last year. I just can’t take it anymore. But she was my shining example, along with my grandparents and my great grandparents, who showed us that — before James Brown even said it  — “Be Black and be proud.”

Can you talk about the growing number of anti-history education laws?

The law in Texas in particular is one that I have looked into, of course, since I teach in Texas. And when I first heard about this House Bill 3979, I just could not believe it. I just felt that this is not something that is really happening. How can educated people decide that a certain history of a variety of people should not be taught? With no regard to even the why of it; it’s just that it should not be taught.

They keep circling back to critical race theory. Public school teachers teach U.S. history and we teach the good, the bad, and the ugly. There are some things that were very ugly and insidious that happened in U.S. history, and they just happened. But our students need to know that these events happened, that people were not treated well, but there were times of overcoming.

The suppressing, the censoring, the censorship that a lot of teachers are feeling is frightening. It harkens back for me to a time in history that I teach — McCarthyism. It harkens back to suppression. It harkens back to even my early education of this patriotic theme that was not for me because of the color of my skin. So these laws are very hurtful, they’re harmful, and it’s frightening what is happening in Texas and around the state.

Can you briefly explain to potential audiences what House Bill 3979 means?

House Bill 3979 was first introduced in the House of Representatives for Texas as a way to restructure how to teach U.S. history. This is coming from an outside source in the state of Texas. We have a Texas state education board, and it’s through the education board that they create the objectives that we teach. The subsequent Senate bill introduced legislation and language to limit what teachers can teach in U.S. history. They actually lined out various things. They took out teaching about labor unions, Cesar Chavez, individual people like Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, any mention of rights for women and feminism. They took out certain writings such as Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and also “I Have a Dream.” Can you imagine not being able to teach Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the anniversary of his birthday, which is a national holiday?

Why are these laws being proposed and passed in so many states at the same time?

I feel it’s a pushback by the Republican Party, by people who are calling themselves “conservatives,” people who are calling themselves “patriots” of this country, people who don’t want to see the diversity of this country. It’s a pushback against not the rise and takeover of any one group, but the elevation of groups into more equity. There are people who are feeling fear of this, and the pushback is because they fear that they’re going to lose power.

It’s not as if anyone in the Black or Brown community is trying to take power from anyone. Just let us live. Just let us live. It’s a pushback. I’m going to pause here, because I think part of the pushback comes from the Obama administration. I’ll just be very blunt about that. Because people in power, especially whites in power, felt that President Obama was changing the course of their world. They didn’t want that change. It wasn’t that President Obama and his presidency was changing the world; it was opening up the world for our children and for our future.

Will the laws impact your classroom? Why or why not?

I could speak mostly about Texas, although in reading the bill — both the House bill and the revised Senate bill, which has yet to be voted on by the House because the Texas House left the state — I can tell you that the language is basically the same in each one of these states where this legislation is being pushed forward. So for me, it’s not as if our own Texas legislature came up with this wording, came up with this idea. It’s coming from an outside source, and it’s coming from an outside source that probably has a lot of money to try to push these things forward. They believe that they are conservatives who are protecting what they call “patriotism,” which really riles me up because my father served in the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and you cannot tell me that my dad was not a patriot.

But they’re coming from a perspective that patriots look a certain way and they don’t look like my dad. They are white. They want all children to not know the achievements, accomplishments, and contributions of all people who have lived in this country. It’s as if they want to erase any race except those white Europeans who came over. Because we know that they were not the original people here.

In Texas, Governor Abbott has also signed an executive order, something that he calls “Project 1836.” 1836 was the year of the Texas Revolution, when the Anglos who had immigrated into Texas or Tejas had taken over the land from the Mexican government. So he wants to center Texas history on 1836, negating the fact that this was Native land, that it was also owned by Spain, it was owned by France, and owned by Mexico. Just centering it on 1836.

The Texas legislature has not quite been able to pass this bill into law yet, but because the Democrats are a minority in the Texas House and Senate, I just have a feeling that it is going to be passed into law once there is a quorum. And the governor is just waiting with bated breath to sign it, as if he’s doing something awesome and wonderful. But what he’s doing is cheating the school children of Texas of really, truly knowing the history of this country. Because it takes all of us together in order to be able to make this country what it is today.

Can you speak to people who are not teachers and who are not parents of students who are in class, people who may feel that they’re distant from this issue? What can they do?

People who do not have students in classrooms, people who are not teachers — they can write their representatives, they can push back, they could go to school board meetings. If you own property, you’re paying for the education within your locality. So if this is something that is abhorrent to you, speak out. Speak out. We can’t have people just sitting back.

Even though you don’t have children in classrooms, you’re not a teacher or in education, this will affect our state. It affects our state negatively in creating this false narrative of what history is. For me, it also is pushing a different narrative of white supremacy: that whites and western Europeans are the reason that this country exists. And it’s not that; it was truly a collaboration of all the people who came here, whether they came here willingly or forced here on slave ships, like my ancestors.

What are the impacts to us from not having access to holistic historical accounts and education?

When I look at events in history that have been line-itemed out of our study of history, one thing was the 15th Amendment. The 15th Amendment gave Black men, freed Black men, the right to vote. I am almost tying this to voter suppression laws that have been springing up all over the South in particular, but all over the country. To me they go hand in hand, because a student might wonder: Why are we suppressing the vote, when in the constitution, my teacher said that by the 15th Amendment all people could vote?

And then with the 19th Amendment, which was also struck out of the House bill, women could vote. They would start to question that. So they’re trying to stop the questioning of what might be their ultimate goal of not just a whitewashing of history, but to suppress the vote so that certain groups of people, white Republicans, stay in power. You can’t teach that, otherwise — students and kids are really smart. They’re going to question: Why is this happening? So if teachers are forced to not teach it, or reluctant to teach it, afraid to teach it, then that just kind of drops off the sphere, so to speak, as something that is known history. Then moving forward with voter suppression is easy. People would say, “Well, why not? It’s always been this way.”

Why did you pledge to teach truth?

I pledged to teach truth and will continue to teach truth because I can’t teach otherwise. I cannot teach a lie. I cannot leave out the contributions of Black and Brown people when I teach Black and Brown students. Representation matters, and I will continue to teach the history of this nation — good, bad, and ugly.

When I pledged to teach truth, it’s part of the mission of me being a teacher to let my students see themselves in history — not suppressed, not bowed down, but times where their ancestors are lifted up, times when my ancestors are lifted up. So I will continue to teach truth.

Would you like to read your pledge?

I teach in Texas and the bill about to become law harms my students. I will continue to teach truth to power because my students deserve to see themselves in history, to know that their ancestors were overcomers, and that they matter. To the governor: too late. I feel the governor needs to visit my class to get an understanding of what real teaching looks like. Just in case anyone asks, I proudly teach at Young Women’s College Preparatory Academy all day, every day. It is a very sad day in Texas when accurate, authentic history is considered a threat to fragile feelings brought on by guilt and ignorance. As educators, we need to stay vigilant and be truth tellers.

As a Black student, at one point in time, I never had a Black teacher. So it makes me smile to hear your story.

Oh, really? So I will tell you, I grew up on Cape Cod and we were the second Black family to move into our entire town. My mom and her friend, Mrs. Merritt, were the only two Black teachers in our school district, and they counted my mom twice because she is a registered Indigenous person of Cherokee and Cree descent. So they counted her twice, Black and Native, so it was like they had three. And I was always like, “Why did they have three? Because it’s just you and Mrs. Merritt.” And my mom finally told me they counted her twice and she actually sued the district and won because they counted her twice.

So I didn’t have any Black teachers, but I have a Black family, and everyone in my family is a teacher. My uncle taught African American studies at Florida A&M University. He’s one of the founders of that FAMU program in the 1960s, and he traveled all around the world studying Black history. It was he who really taught us, the whole family, Black history and the pride that we have and the connection that our family has to this history. It’s not something that’s just floating around out there.

So I really want my students to know this history, to talk to their parents, to feel a connection with them — not to feel as if they’re just floating around unconnected, untethered to anything. That’s why I do what I do, and if I have to go to year 42 to try to continue to combat this, I’ll do it. If I have to be a test case, I’ll do it. I’ve already made that pledge and I’ve told my family, I feel that strongly about this; if they want to make a test case out of anybody, they could pony up and be ready, because Nelva Williamson is ready for them.