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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Kali Blount’s perspective on Black history shifted his senior year of high school.

Growing up, he didn’t learn much about it. Everything changed when his friends took him to a presentation by historian Yosef Ben-Yochannan in downtown Detroit.

Ben-Yochannan was an Ethiopian-born Cornell professor who had two doctoral degrees in anthropology and Moorish history from the University of Havana and the University of Barcelona. He spoke about his summer experiences taking students to the Nile Valley to interpret hieroglyphics.

It sparked the then 17-year-old’s passion for Black history.

“This level of consciousness kind of just dropped on me suddenly in the space of one speech,” Blount said. “I'm still digging for new information all these years later. That started me with a burning interest in African history.”

Growing up, Blount said his parents weren’t quick to discuss Black history.

“They were some of those black parents who didn't want to remember the pain,” Blount said. “They didn't tell me about the segregation they fled, and the disrespect they couldn't stand anymore.”

The more Blount learned, the more he realized how little most people knew about Black history, he said. Blount said he believes Americans need to do more to learn from history.

Blount moved to Gainesville as a 31-year-old in 1987 where he and a friend formed the Afruikan Studies Association of Alachua County, an organization that presented the school board with a petition advocating for more Black history in schools that had more than 700 signatures.

Although some teachers made an effort to include comprehensive Black history in their curriculums, they were doing so with their own money, Blount said. These teachers often bought supplemental materials, brought in videos and risked taking time away from state exam preparation.

The majority of teachers only gave Black history brief attention during February for Black History Month, and then forgot about it, Blount said. In response to his petition, the school board put $25,000 into the Multicultural Curriculum Committee, with the purpose of teaching Black history in Alachua County Public Schools.

While the textbooks purchased then had a beautiful, glossy cover, Blount said he was disappointed when he opened them. The chapters featuring Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. both had pictures of them in their caskets at their funeral.

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“These became an effort to point out a few amazing exceptions in the cultures of various parts of the world other than Europe, but to make them look like exceptions, superficial and episodic, without tying them to the current time,” Blount said.

About five years ago, Blount and other members of the Gainesville community decided to form a community task force to push the school board for Black history in Alachua County Schools.

The African American history task force’s first meeting had about 50 attendees, said Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, one of the task force organizers. The group then started meeting at the Wilhelmina Johnson Center on 10th Ave.

Simmons is also involved with a statewide task force pushing for Black history in public schools. The group developed a list of criteria that certify if a school board is in compliance with Florida statutes requiring Black history education in schools.

The Alachua County School Board wasn’t in compliance with the criteria, Simmons said. The purpose of the African American history task force was to put pressure on the school board to comply with the criteria, Simmons added.

“This is one of the things that finally the school board has gotten serious about,” Simmon said.

After pushes from task force members, like Blount and Simmons, the school board is now trying to achieve exemplary status, a designation given to counties that fulfil all the criteria.

Out of the 67 counties in Florida, only about five have achieved the exemplary status, Simmons added.

School Board Member Tina Certain remembers watching Blount at school board meetings on Channel 8, the public access channel, during the ‘90s — long before she was a school board member.

“A lot of people give up when things don’t happen overnight, but Mr. Blount has had a persistence that I haven’t seen a great deal of,” she said.

Starting in 1994, Blount was at almost every school board meeting for 15 years straight, Blount said. He used his three minutes of speaking time to give Black history lessons, correct errors or highlight what was missing in the schools’ textbooks.

One of Blount’s Black history lessons covered the Confederate flag.

In early 1861, Republicans on Capitol Hill, pushed by Lincoln, offered an amendment to the constitution called the Corwin Amendment, Blount said. The Corwin Amendment, meant to appease southerners, guaranteed slavery wouldn’t be dismantled.

The Southerners rejected this amendment, Blount said, not because they didn’t want slavery, but because they wanted the opportunity to expand slavery to new states in the west.

“So every time they wave the Confederate flag, it’s not just heritage,” he said. “It’s the defense of slavery.”

School board member Leanetta McNealy, said she only remembers Blount missing one or two meetings during her eight year tenure.

“He has tenacity because of his relentless spirit to be present, and to share with the board why African American History should be a necessity within the walls of our schools,” McNealy said.

Although Blount is currently a nurse at UF Health Shands Hospital, he still comes straight from work to school board meetings, McNealy said. She added that she’s impressed to see him volunteering in classrooms around Alachua County.

“The feedback that we have gotten from instructional staff is that he’s just wonderful, and we’ve really wished that we could push him out from the medical field into the educational field,” McNealy said.

After all his efforts for comprehensive Black history in schools, Blount said he was excited when the Florida Legislature added to a law known as Required Instruction K through 12 this year.

The new statewide mandate requires every school system to certify in writing at the end of the school year what they have done to teach their students about Black history. Because of the law, Alachua County offered a Black history elective in every high school at the beginning of the previous school year.

However, Blount said he was disappointed by the textbook’s cover. It pictured two Black women wearing burlap clothes and carrying giant baskets of cotton.

“Out of all the things they could’ve used for a cover picture, that’s what they chose?” Blount said. “Think of all the things they could’ve used for a cover image. Where’s Madam C.J. Walker, the first woman millionaire? Where’s Benjamin Benneker designing the layout of Washington D.C.?”

While Blount said he feels disappointed about the textbook, he’s glad students are learning and that progress is being made. Curtain said she is grateful for his efforts to put Black history in Alachua County Schools.

“A lot of people give up when things don’t happen overnight, but Mr. Blount has had a persistence that I haven’t seen a great deal of,” Certain said.

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