Race in America

Teachers union, DeSantis disagree on whether slavery had any benefits

New Florida education standards say slaves learned skills that "could be applied to their personal benefit." Teachers say that is "ahistorical."

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the Family Leadership Summit.
Charlie Neibergall/AP

The head of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, and other educators decried Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on recent comments involving slavery. 

The response comes after Florida's Board of Education approved a new curriculum for African American history. One of the biggest issues critics have with the curriculum is a section in the state's summary of the new standards that include instruction on "how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied to their personal benefit."

The skills performed by slaves mentioned would include agricultural work, painting, carpentry, tailoring, domestic service, blacksmithing and transportation. The new lesson would be taught to children in grades 6-8. 

DeSantis defended the new standards and said last week, "They're probably going to show some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life. The reality is all of that is rooted in whatever is factual." 

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But Weingarten and retired teacher Leo Casey, who is executive director emeritus of the Albert Shanker Institute, issued a joint statement in opposition to the new standards.

"It is beyond belief that Florida would be claiming that enslavement provided the skills to become teachers, and to cite examples of enslaved individuals overcoming the strictures of slavery to become literate as justification for its 'there were 'good points' of slavery’ argument," they said.

Weingarten and Casey took issue with DeSantis' backing of the standards. 

"This is disgusting and willfully ahistorical," they said. "Normally publishing a grievously racist notion like 'slaves benefited from slavery' would be considered an embarrassment and quickly withdrawn. But not for Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, where doubling down on this noxious claim is seen as a badge of honor."

The new standards also include less controversial aspects of slavery, such as how slaves were traded and how slaves were treated as property and not given basic human rights.