We Have Come into His House: The Black Church, Florida’s Stop W.O.K.E., and the Fight to Teach Black History (Part I)

Timothy Welbeck

Old Florida State Capitol, Tallahassee by DXR (CC BY-SA 4.0).

We have come into His house to gather in His name to worship Him” – Bruce Ballinger

“We request Black teachers of Black studies. It is not that we believe only Black people can understand the Black experience. It is, rather, that we acknowledge the difference between reality and criticism as the difference between the Host and Parasite.” – June Jordan

“Philosophers have long conceded, however, that every man has two educators: that which is given to him, and the other that which he gives himself. Of the two kinds the latter is by far the more desirable. – Carter G. Woodson

On what would seem like an ordinary Wednesday evening in October 2023, nearly 100 congregants poured into the quaint sanctuary of Agape Perfecting Praise and Worship Center, each of them filing one-by-one into a seat on the plush, plum-colored cushions of the church’s pews. Agape Perfecting Praise and Worship Center meets in a single-story building sitting at the midway point of a winding road just off a main thoroughfare called Ivy Lane in southwest Orlando. Its building has an ivory-painted exterior constructed from a mixture of brick and panel siding, with a steeple jutting out of its roof stretching nearly a yard towards the heavens. A row of neatly manicured bushes and two small palm trees perch a few feet from the front entrance. Inside, at the end of the sanctuary’s center aisle, worshippers will find an ornate, four-foot-tall glass pulpit planted on a stage between two ferns. When Pastor Sharon Riley stepped behind the pulpit this Wednesday evening, she began the evening’s activities with a word of prayer, “So if you will take a moment and just bow your heads with me. Father, we just thank you for your grace. It is still so amazing.” As she continued to pray, her soothing, reassuring voice welcomed those in attendance for what was to come.

While this may appear to be the beginning of a typical midweek service for devoted churchgoers, this evening’s service marked the start of this congregation’s first-ever African American History master class. On this Wednesday evening in October at Agape, Dr. LaVon Bracy, Director of Democracy at Faith in Florida, taught those in attendance on the unrelenting horrors of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Dr. Bracy is a civil rights trailblazer who was one of three students who integrated Gainesville High School in 1964 (the first high school integrated in Florida’s Alachua County). She and her late husband, the Rev. Dr. Randolph Bracy, Jr., regularly visited Agape, so she gladly partnered with Pastor Riley when presented the opportunity to teach the African American History master class at the church. Towards the conclusion of the first class she taught, Dr. Bracy provided students with tiny vials of soil she brought from her many trips to Africa. She told those assembled that night she did not know what she would do with the soil at the time she collected it but one day, “God would show [her] what to do with [it].” She seemed to see the soil’s purpose when several of the people gleefully exclaimed, “I’ve never been to Africa, but now I’ve got the soil.”

The African American History master class at Agape, and ones like unto it, have sprouted up in nearly 300 churches across Florida. These classes, though partly supported by organizations like the Orlando-based Faith in Florida, are mainly congregation-led initiatives to teach Black history to their communities in the wake of recent legislative changes in the state.

Pastor Riley said she decided Agape should host its African American History master class because, “[W]e have families who have students who are registered in our public school system, we know that there are certain pieces of information relevant to our history that are not going to be taught.” Pastor Riley feels this in an acute manner considering she is a product of Florida’s public schools having received her primary and secondary education at public schools in Orange County located less than five minutes from Agape. Afterwards, she earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Florida. She subsequently returned to southwest Orlando to serve the community that helped raise her, and in so doing, founded Agape Perfecting Praise and Worship Center with seven people in regular attendance at the time. The church now serves hundreds each week. In the fall of 2023, Pastor Riley decided it was time for Agape to host its African American History master class after speaking with local public school teachers who removed books from shelves of classrooms like unto ones in which she once sat. She also learned several others discontinued teaching certain historical facts due to concerns over penalties for potential violations of recent legislation in Florida. The recent legislative changes, which elicited the trepidation among the educators, have made some observers argue Florida cannot decide whether it wants to “erase Black history, or lie about it.” Hence, Agape Perfecting Praise and Worship Center and hundreds of other churches within the Sunshine State recently decided, “they would teach Black history themselves” following state-sanctioned restrictions of teaching Black history in public schools.

Employing a Western legal framework might lead one to describe this course of action as an instance where rogue actors conspired to use houses of worship to defy state law. Furthermore, adopting a Western perspective on the Christian faith may have one arrive at a similar conclusion, and may also lead one to cajole these churches to “observe the principles of law and order and common sense.” Centering the perspective of the Black churches, the communities they serve, and those who willingly attend the courses they offer will tell a tale of agency, resilience, and resourcefulness. From that vantage point, it is a story of a people who used the institutions they built to supply a need in their communities that the state failed to provide. Moreover, centering the perspective of these churches may also allow one to see how they determined “[Their] direct action program could be delayed no longer.” It may also cause one to see how they found critiques from naysayers as a type of “social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.” Therefore, whether these actions constitute defiant, unlawful rebellion or courageous autonomy and self-reliance depend on the observer’s orientation

This essay adopts an Africological approach as it chronicles these experiences and interrogates the legislation that prompted it. Africology is “the Afrocentric study of African phenomena.” In his book, Afrocentricity The Theory of Social Change, Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, the architect of Afrocentricity and foremost scholar of Africology, defines Afrocentricity as “a mode of thought and action in which the centrality of African interests, values, and perspective predominate.” Africology then, I join in arguing, is a valuable theoretical framework to examine the subject at hand because it both incorporates elements of other social sciences—peer review, qualitative research, quantitative research—and utilizes its unique perspective to delve into critical inquiry of social phenomena. 

This essay is published in two separate, yet corresponding parts. Part One interrogates recent legislation in Florida, specifically how said legislation restricts and restructures the way classrooms in primary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions within the state may explore topics relating to race and racism. Part Two of We Have Come into His House will then explore the historical context that informed the passage of the legislation, mainly the Critical Race Theory moral panic that intensified beginning in the fall of 2020, and the national response it sparked. More importantly, Part Two of We Have Come Into His House concludes by centering the response of faith communities across the state that have elected to create or host Black history courses in response to these legislative acts. The title itself alludes to a hymn written by Bruce Ballinger, then the Music Minister at Kennedy Road Tabernacle located in Toronto. Ballinger penned the hymn as an encouragement for local parishioners not to “[neglect] to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing.” The hymn has become a staple among historically Black churches in the near five decades since its original writing, and thus has become illustrative of how Black sacred spaces (along with the music played and sung within them) have embodied “[B]lack people’s resistance to the cultural subjugation imposed by the larger society.”

I. HB7 (Stop W.O.K.E.) and Other Relevant Florida Legislation

After securing a second gubernatorial term during the fall 2022 election cycle, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis proudly proclaimed, “Florida is where woke goes to die” during his victory speech at his campaign headquarters in Tampa. In his sixteen-minute diatribe, he also declared, “We fight the woke in the legislature. We fight the woke in the schools. We fight the woke in the corporations. We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob.” Undoubtedly, these remarks (including his continued misuse and weaponization of the term “woke”) alluded to recently enacted Florida laws, which DeSantis likely believed would propel him further into the national spotlight as he pursued the presidency. The capstone of DeSantis’ foray onto the battlegrounds of the culture wars are mainly HB 7 (also referred to as the Stop W.O.K.E. Act) and HB 999, laws legal scholars have described as “a mammoth threat to historical and contemporary knowledge about race.” They have substantially altered the state’s policy towards teaching matters of history, race, and racism at all levels from pre-kindergarten to graduate or professional school.

Governor DeSantis signed HB7 into law Friday April 22, 2022. The bill easily passed in Florida’s state legislature prior to landing on his desk. The law’s express purpose seeks to restrict the mode, method, and manner of teachings related to race and related topics in all of the state’s public schools. The legislation usurps nearly three decades of landmark legislation that previously required Florida public schools to teach Black history substantively. HB7 has since radically reshaped and otherwise limited these mandates to teach Black history in Florida’s K-12 curriculum. One of the ways it does this is by classifying teachings about race and related topics as discriminatory. The legislative language of HB7 identifies teachings of race, racism, and related topics as “specified concepts [which] constitute discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, or national origin.” More specifically, HB 7 regulates how public school educators may teach race-related subject matter, and further identifies several topics for curriculum reform in state-funded public education. These topics include:

[R]evising requirements for required instruction on the history of African Americans; authorizing instructional personnel to facilitate discussions and use curricula to address, in age-appropriate manner, specified topics; prohibiting classroom instruction and curricula from being used to indoctrinate or persuade students in a manner inconsistent with certain principles or state academic standards; requiring the department to prepare and offer certain standards and curriculum; authorizing the department to seek input from a specified organization for certain purposes; revising the requirements for required instruction for health education; requiring such instruction to comport with certain principles and include certain life skills; requiring civic and character education instead of a character development program; providing requirements of such education to be consistent with specified principles of individual freedom…

Katheryn Russell-Brown, Levin, Mabie & Levin Professor of Law and Director of Race and Crime Center at the University of Florida College of Law argues the legislative language of HB 7 is simultaneously plain and opaque, at times both problematic and incomprehensible. In a Fordham Urban Law Journal article, she further explains this legislative language basically forestalls meaningful classroom discussions and assignments on “systemic and structural analyses of how race and racism have impacted the social, political, and economic landscape.” By way of example, she offers HB 7 §4, which establishes that discrimination occurs when an instructor compels students to believe a “member of one race, color, national origin, or sex cannot, and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race, color, national origin, or sex.” In this example, Professor Russell-Brown contends that the law’s use of “cannot” and “without” seem to support the converse of what the bill suggests as its stated purpose. Professor Russell-Brown ultimately finds the theoretical foundation on which HB 7 rests is one rooted in anti-Black legislative responses akin to early anti-literacy laws. In addition to its faulty theoretical foundation, Florida’s HB 7 met several legal challenges, which eventually resulted in a partial injunction that restricted the Florida Commission on Human Relations from enforcing the provisions of the law concerning employers. HB 999 enacts similar limitations of educational instruction.

Florida’s HB 999 went into effect on Saturday, July 1, 2023. Signed by Governor DeSantis at New College of Florida in the spring of the same year, the law revises academic standards at state research universities in addition to providing requirements for faculty. The law primarily targets diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at each of the state’s public colleges and universities. Governor DeSantis touted the legislation as another measure in his aggressive reforms to rescue higher education from “woke activism.” Some of its provisions significantly hamper any ability to meaningfully teach about matters pertaining to race and racism or advocate for racial equity. For example, the law expressly prohibits a Florida College System institution from using state or federal funds to “advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion, or promote or engage in political or social activism.”  These legislative provisions culminated in the University of Florida terminating its chief officer, eliminating the office’s other staff positions, and suspending any university contracts that involved diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

HB 999 further provides, “General education courses must be based on the fundamental truth all persons are equal before the before the law and have inalienable rights and may not distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches politics.”

The law also requires Humanities courses to include “selections from Western canon,” which further establishes the law’s intent to codify exalting certain viewpoints to the exclusion of others. Thus, Florida’s legislation—HB 7 and HB 999—is impacting public education provided in the state, namely by having a chilling effect on scholarship examining race and racism. 

Professor Russell-Brown draws a corollary between Florida’s HB 7 and HB 999 and the anti-literacy laws of the 18th and 19th century. Anti-literacy laws, primarily in effect across slaveholding states from 1740-1867, prohibited Black people, both enslaved and free, from learning to read and write, imposing harsh penalties for any violations. Literacy for Black people, especially the enslaved, was seen as an affront to the institution of slavery and the societal order it maintained. The institution of slavery hinged upon “widely held assumptions regarding the relationship between whites and blacks, labor and capital, plain folk and gentry, and the individual and the state.” Hence, the enslaved posed a novel conundrum as personal property with the capability for independent thought and action, which many slaveholders feared could lead to rebellions and revolts. In his canonical autobiography, Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Douglass offers an anecdotal experience that affirms the philosophical underpinnings of anti-literacy law and practice. When Douglass’ then master Hugh Auld learned his wife had begun teaching a young Douglass phonics, he chided her by saying, “A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master–to do as he is told… If you teach that nigger [speaking of Douglass] how to read, there will be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.” This contention encapsulates the purpose of anti-literacy imposed upon Black communities during the period of enslavement. 

While anti-literacy laws literally exacted harsh punishments for those who taught the enslaved to read, the laws evolved over time to ban substantive literacy. Professor Russell-Brown argues HB 7 and HB 999 have foundations that rest upon the anti-literacy laws of the 1700s and are supported by a complex nexus of laws and policies that reinforce the belief “Black people and members of other marginalized groups should have fewer civil rights, fewer constitutional protections, and less access to mainstream success.” Other bans implemented by Florida’s legislature have yielded analogous results, and rely on similar theoretical foundations.

On Thursday, January 12, 2023, the Florida Department of Education issued a letter to the College Board, the organization overseeing AP exams, announcing its decision to reject the pilot AP African American Studies course. The letter from the state’s education department alleged the course, “As presented … is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.” The letter itself did not cite a specific law the course presumably violated; however, many suspect it was likely HB 7. In a press conference announcing the decision, Governor DeSantis said, “We believe in teaching kids facts and how to think, but we don’t believe they should have an agenda imposed on them…” 

The course in question is the AP African American Studies course provided by the College Board. By the College Board’s own description, it is “an interdisciplinary course [examining] the diversity of African American experiences through direct encounters with rich and varied sources.” It is organized in four thematic units arranged chronologically: Origins of the African Diaspora (~900 BCE-16th Century), Freedom, Enslavement, and Resistance (16th century-1865), The Practice of Freedom (1865-1940), Movements and Debates (1940s-2000s).  The pilot program included a total of 60 schools in its first year (the 2022-2023 academic year). In creating and developing the course, the College Board consulted with more than 300 professors of African American Studies, in addition to scores of high school teachers from across the country, for feedback on learning outcomes, content topics, and skills for students to acquire. Consequently, the course is a prototypical Advanced Placement African American Studies course that could reasonably supplant an introductory African American Studies course at the post-secondary level. 

Even if Florida allowed for the AP African American Studies course, all of the students in Florida’s public high schools could not have taken it, which defuses allegations it would indoctrinate all of Florida’s high school students. At the time the state prohibited the adoption of the course, the College Board had only proposed implementing it  in less than 100 schools nationwide because it was still in its pilot phase. Florida has 2,227 high schools, 1,485 of which are public. Thus, Florida’s Board of Education insinuating the course has an agenda to indoctrinate high school students within the state and lacks educational merit is a baseless claim, particularly when one takes into account the academic rigor that went into its creation and development. Restricting students in Florida from taking the course also reveals the presupposed motivations of Florida’s bans—to prohibit instruction of race and racism on a systemic or structural level, particularly teaching examining anti-Black animus. These restrictions all happen under the guise of faithful adherence to American history and removal bias in public school classrooms. While the Florida Board of Education standards may require instruction of African American history that includes “the history of African people before the … conflicts that led to slavery … the enslavement experience … abolition … the history and contributions of Americans of the African diaspora,” these standards also recommended  teaching “slaves developed skills, which in some instances, could be applied for personal benefit.” This caveat suggesting that slavery created personal benefits for the enslaved contradicts the historical record pertaining to the peculiar institution, and further inculcates a viewpoint that diminishes the horrors of chattel slavery. This is compounded by the fact that Florida’s current state-mandated guidelines remove the ability of public school educators to discuss the systemic and structural components of racism within the context of US history.

HB7, HB 999, and other similar bans across the state have cascading effects on the nearly three million students in Florida’s public PK-12 schools. The state education department removed 54 math textbooks alleging they harbored elements of Critical Race Theory. Moreover, Florida’s bans are so stringent, the Escambia County School District (located in Pensacola) removed dictionaries from its school libraries. The school district also removed several encyclopedias, The Guinness Book of World Records, and Ripley’s Believe It or Not prior to the start of the 2023-2024 academic year.  These legislative measures not only resulted in a school district removing dictionaries and encyclopedias, it also prohibited substantive teaching of Black history as virtually any text referencing race, or authored by a Black person, can become the subject of removal from public schools in Florida. Eventually, the laws would prove to be so chaotic and confusing that Governor DeSantis expressed his disapproval for one of its signature elements. Aside from this unfolding, the legislation has already faced a bevy of legal challenges which has led to the belief courts will strike it down in whole or in part.

In Pernell v. Florida Board of Governors, a suit filed by the ACLU on behalf of a group of multi-racial educators and a student a college student in Florida, the US District Court for the Northern District of Florida ruled for the plaintiffs and partially blocked HB 7. In his 139-page order, which referred to HB 7 as “positively dystopian,” Judge Mark Walker held, “The State of Florida’s decision to choose which viewpoints are worthy of illumination and which must remain in the shadows has implications for us all … The First Amendment does not permit the state of Florida to muzzle its university professors, impose its own orthodoxy of viewpoints, and cast us all into the dark.” In his ruling, Judge Walker continued this notion in holding:

Striking at the heart of ‘open-mindedness and critical inquiry,’ the State of Florida has taken over the ‘marketplace of ideas’ to suppress disfavored viewpoints and limit where professors may shine their light on eight specific ideas… One thing is crystal clear–both robust intellectual inquiry and democracy require light to thrive…If our ‘priests of democracy’ are not allowed to shed light on challenging ideas, then democracy will die in darkness.  

Governor DeSantis, through his state administration, appealed the ruling and moved the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to lift the lower court’s injunction. The court denied this motion.

Similarly, a group of authors, a book publisher, and two parents of students attending public schools in Escambia County have filed suit in the US District Court of Northern District of Florida. Citing decades of Supreme Court precedent, the suit alleges Florida’s restrictions and book removals “disproportionately targeted books by or about people of color and/or LGBTQ people, and have prescribed an orthodoxy of opinion that violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.” Specifically, the Court held in Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 870 (1982) school administrators may wield “significant discretion to determine the content of their school libraries” so long as said discretion is not “exercised in a narrowly partisan or political manner.” Similarly, in its decision in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment cannot compel uniformity of opinion, reasoning in part, “Boards of Education … have, of course, important, delicate, and highly discretionary functions, but none that they may not perform within the limits of the Bill of Rights.” It remains to be seen how the courts will rule on this matter, which makes the 11th Circuit’s ruling so impactful considering because, as of the time of this writing, no court has yet to uphold HB 7.

In sum, over the past few years, Florida has engaged in aggressive legislative reforms that effectively bans the teaching of Black history, in addition to removal of other topics the Governor finds unseemly. These regressive policies are fueled in large part by anti-Black animus. State standards that frame chattel slavery as a benefit to the enslaved, restricting any Florida students from accessing an AP African American course rigorously designed by experts in the field while requiring all Florida students take Asian American and Pacific Islanders courses and mandating Humanities courses in the state include “selections from the Western canon” elucidates an inherent bias against the teaching of Black history. These motivations also explain why much of the legislative restrictions on teaching about race and racism presume a binary of Black and White despite the divergent populations of people within the state of Florida. In essence, these restrictions seek to dull the impact of teaching of structural racism that emanated from the nation’s founding institutions, especially when considering how they disenfranchised Black people. 

These legislative reforms in Florida have had a deleterious impact on education in the state as it has restricted and restructured teaching about race and racism within the state’s public educational institutions, and otherwise created a chilling effect that stifles classroom instruction. While federal courts determine whether the legislation passes constitutional muster, institutions like traditional Black churches and nonprofit organizations have begun filling in the gaps that this regressive legislation has created. Part Two of this essay will more thoroughly explore the historical context animating the passage of the legislation, mainly the Critical Race Theory moral panic of the past several years that began intensifying in earnest during the fall of 2020. Moreover, Part Two of We Have Come Into His House will center the action of faith institutions in Florida that have found ways to circumvent the restrictive nature of the aforementioned legislation to ensure Black history is adequately taught within their communities. ♦

Timothy Welbeck is the Director for the Center of Anti-Racism at Temple University.  A Civil Rights Attorney by training, Timothy is a scholar of law, race, and cultural studies whose work has allowed him to contribute to various media outlets, such as the CNN, CBS, BBC Radio 4, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, NPR, The Huffington Post, WHYY, REVOLT TV, etc. Timothy lives in the Philadelphia area with his wife and three children. 

Recommended Citation

Welbeck, Timothy. “We Have Come into His House: The Black Church, Florida’s Stop W.O.K.E., and the Fight to Teach Black History – Part I.” Canopy Forum, April 23 2024. canopyforum.org/2024/04/23/we-have-come-into-his-house-the-black-church-floridas-stop-woke-and-the-fight-to-teach-black-history-part-i/.

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