The flashpoint was the “runaway slave” game during Black History Month.
For many years, Black parents showed up en masse at school board meetings to object to the racially biased treatment of Black children in Loudoun County, a suburb in northern Virginia. Then, in February 2019, students at Madison’s Trust Elementary School in Ashburn were told to navigate an obstacle course in gym class to simulate enslaved people escaping through the Underground Railroad.
In one instance, a Black child was chosen to play the “runaway slave.”
The incident pushed Loudoun County Public Schools into the national spotlight, said Katrece Nolen, a Black mother of two school-age children in the district. Loudoun’s history of structural racism in education, however, dates back decades. Its school system was the last in Virginia, and one of the last in the nation, to desegregate following the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. By the time Loudoun fully integrated in 1968, the school board and county leaders had engaged in years of massive resistance to maintain segregation — and, in the process, denied Black students and families equal access to public schools.
It is the legacy of that inequitable treatment that Loudoun County is now aiming to address, explained Nolen, who’s lived in the county for 19 years and recently chaired the LCPS Minority Student Achievement Advisory Committee. An equity assessment conducted in the spring of 2019 documented a pattern of systemic racism and discrimination within the school system — from racial slurs and racially motivated violence to discriminatory discipline policies and practices. What followed was a 16-point action plan in summer 2020 that identified steps to combat systemic racism in the county’s schools. The plan received resounding support from a diverse cross-section of the community at the time, Nolen said.
“At least 75 individuals virtually spoke in favor of it,” she said. “I was there. There was no press ... and people weren’t yelling. And then they started to implement the plan.”
Soon after, Loudoun County was back in the news, as the school system was thrust into the contentious national debate surrounding critical race theory ― an academic framework, previously little-discussed outside of universities, that examines how racism is embedded in American institutions and society. Across the country, the panic over CRT has become a catchall for disapproval of any teaching on race. In Loudoun County, the pendulum had swung from transforming the racial climate to raucous school board meetings. The pushback intersects with rapid and significant demographic changes in the county, in particular the tremendous growth of families of color and the sharp decline of the white population: from some 85% in 2000 to just 60% in 2020.
Against this backdrop, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Glenn Youngkin appeared, capitalizing on white parents’ angst by vowing to ban critical race theory from Virginia schools on his first day in office. Political commentators have credited his upset win on Nov. 2 to his campaign’s focus on education and parents.
But whose education, and which parents?
With the attention on “parents’ rights” in the widely covered Virginia election, one group was conspicuously absent: Black families who support teaching about race and racism. Some Black parents say their voices and viewpoints were sidelined. And amid all the uproar and outcry, the effect on Virginia’s Black children was largely overlooked.
“The parents who are outraged right now and spreading this misinformation about teaching critical race theory ... why were they not concerned about [slavery] being taught as if it was a game?” Nolen asked. “It wasn’t an issue for those parents when kids were going to tours of local plantations, hearing the enslaved referred to as ‘helpers’ ... If they don’t like equity and what’s discussed and taught now, what’s their answer to what was being taught to our kids?”
Whytni Kernodle, co-founder and president of Black Parents of Arlington, said the conflation of “suburban moms” with “white, affluent women” that was reinforced in the Virginia election was disturbing.
“I’m a Virginia suburban mom,” said Kernodle, a resident of Arlington for 16 years and the mother of two high-schoolers in Arlington Public Schools. Virginians, like Black people, are not a monolith, she said, noting the scarcity of Black parents quoted as anti-CRT rhetoric dominated the Virginia governor’s race.
Yet Kernodle is not surprised by the backlash.
“We’re naive to believe that all white people want to provide equity and opportunity to others,” she said, adding that Arlington was never really the bastion of progressive thought it’s sometimes perceived to be. She started BPA in 2017 as a social space, but it quickly transitioned into an advocacy group of Black parents and allies lobbying the school system on behalf of Arlington’s Black children. Last August, the Arlington School Board unanimously adopted an equity policy ― the first in the district’s history ― that accounts for the “historical and current impact of bias, prejudice and discrimination” in its schools, and commits to culturally relevant curricula and materials.
The criticism came as soon as it became apparent that equity and inclusion were a priority in the district, Kernodle said. She is not swayed by the theory that people attacking anti-racist education in schools have been duped by conservatives. Rather, she posits that Virginians who fight the truthful teaching of history lack the self-awareness to face the original sins on which this country was built.
“The stolen land from the Indigenous, the genocide of the Indigenous, and then the enslaved labor by the Africans is how this country came to be a superpower,” she said. “For some people, the look in the mirror at what their ancestors were able to do and able to take, and the fact that they got where they are based on their whiteness and not any manifest destiny of superiority, is just too [hard].”
The implication that white children are harmed by learning the ugly and painful truths of racism, when Black children must experience racism and hate firsthand, is both angering and annoying, said Kyndall Evans, who graduated from Prince William County Public Schools in June. In May of her junior year at Charles J. Colgan, Sr. High School in Manassas, a classmate sparked outrage after a Snapchat post circulated online that showed him wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt and condoning violence against people of color. Evans said she no longer felt safe in school, and accused school leaders of sweeping the incident under the rug.
“Think how uncomfortable Black and other people of color have been in this country for years and years,” said Evans, who is now in her first year at Northern Virginia Community College. “What we experience is nothing compared to your child’s discomfort about learning a sensitive topic.”
Prince William County’s schools superintendent issued a statement in June 2020 “promoting antiracism,” and the school board subsequently approved an equity plan this year. Still, from kindergarten through 12th grade, Evans says, she learned a watered-down, ahistorical curriculum that favored Eurocentric perspectives and excluded the existence and resistance of Black people. It was not until she visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in seventh grade that she understood the magnitude of the erasure.
“My parents would set us down and talk about our history, but we didn’t really learn about racism in school,” Evans said. “I learned more out of school and also on social media than I did in school, which makes absolutely no sense.”
Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a professor of history at Norfolk State University, said the impulse to miseducate students by hiding America’s true past is a consequence of not fully understanding history. Taking a deep dive into history is inherently controversial, she explained — people are complex and flawed, and the complexities are even greater once you introduce race. “If telling history makes you feel guilty about something, then maybe the issue is not the story, but rather what you’re hiding from,” she said.
When she’s taught African-American history to diverse groups, students are riveted by the stories, which she says is because they’re discovering new information that deepens their understanding of present society. The refusal to challenge students’ thinking is the antithesis of learning, she said.
“With tools of knowledge they come back and offer some really interesting points of view,” Newby-Alexander said. “That’s the kind of relationship you want in your class; young people having the opportunity to read a lot, and then discuss it.”
In 2019, Newby-Alexander was tapped to co-chair Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s Commission on African American History Education, which reviewed Virginia’s standards and instructional practices for teaching African-American history. Its final report found the standards were “tainted with a master narrative that marginalized or erased the presence of non-Europeans from the American landscape.” The commission’s recommendations led to the inclusion of more Black history in all Virginia history classes, and a new high school elective course in African-American history.
“The goals were shifting, the structural change was happening,” said Amina Luqman-Dawson, a Black public school parent and author from Arlington. “Now we’re at a point, sadly, where it’s reversed.”
The stakes are extremely high for Black families, she said, as the Republican Party uses Black people as a scare tactic, and her relatively liberal community is “unwilling to have a full-throated, clear message” supporting Black voices and Black history.
“We need to be extremely proactive in this moment,” she said, troubled by the lack of urgency she’s seeing. Her frustration mostly lies with Arlington Schools and its reflexive defense that “we don’t teach critical race theory” to tamp down the rancor over CRT.
Luqman-Dawson said her district’s complacency is inadequate to address the antagonism that some white parents have about their children being involved in discussions about race. This assault grows from anti-Blackness, she emphasized, and school systems ― and Democratic politicians ― will have to adopt a different strategy to fight the amorphous opposition.
“These institutions are going to have to stand up for something. They’re going to have to stand up for the Black experience. They’re going to have to stand up for the truth,” she said. “They’re going to have to call it people’s fears about inclusion and decentering whiteness when we look at our history. They’re going to have to call it what it is in order to be able to fight for what’s right.”
For Luqman-Dawson, the fight is intensely personal. As a teen attending a private school in California, she vividly recalls being the sole Black student in class as her U.S. history teacher claimed that the institution of slavery helped civilize Africans. She wished for something better for her 13-year-old son. He’s had some teachers who valued a more complex, truthful examination of the U.S., and who incorporated Black history into their lessons. But she fears those teachers will be silenced in the current climate — and that educators who were starting to reshape lesson plans following last summer’s nationwide racial protests will be motivated to stop.
What’s happening in Virginia is especially sobering given the upcoming release of Luqman-Dawson’s second book. “Freewater” chronicles the tale of two enslaved children who find their way into the wilderness and a Maroon community, a settlement of formerly enslaved Africans who gained freedom by escaping into swampland and marshes near plantations. She was inspired to write the book to present a new way of talking about enslavement with children: a story focused not on victimization, but on hope, strength and the ingenuity of Black people.
The unanswered question is whether her book could be part of classroom libraries in some Virginia public schools today. “I wrote it for my son, and other kids just like him,” Luqman-Dawson said. “That I should even have to wonder is chilling and heartbreaking.”