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

Adelle Banks/Religion News Service | 10/19/2023, 6 p.m.
When the Rev. Rhonda Thomas decided to create a toolkit to help teach Black history outside the public school system …
Rev. Thomas

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.

Rev. 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 Rev. 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.

“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 Rev. Thomas has long been leading at Faith in Florida, a multiracial and multi-faith 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 inAction, a national community-organizing network.

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.

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.

What does that say to you about that sense of interest — that it’s gone beyond Florida and beyond Black churches.

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.