5 Events that Ought to be Added to the US History Curriculum
Updated: Aug 3
You might not remember many things from your high school history class, but if you don’t remember being taught about Japanese internment camps, women’s colleges, or the Tulsa massacre, that’s likely because you weren’t taught about those things.
In the interest of re-education, here is a list of things your teacher might not have covered in your high school history class.
Less than 48 hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government began the process of forcefully gathering Japanese-Americans and depositing them in internment camps (1). In total, 120,000 innocent immigrants and American citizens of Japanese heritage were incarcerated by their own government (1). They were imprisoned because the U.S. government perceived them as a threat, an assessment that one naval intelligence officer said was simply “because of the physical characteristics of the people” (1). It’s also important to note that “there was no wholesale incarceration of U.S. residents who traced their ancestry to Germany or Italy, America’s other enemies [at that time]” (1).
"That hand is not the color of yours, but if I prick it, the blood will flow, and I shall feel pain. The blood is of the same color as yours. God made me, and I am a man." -Standing Bear (5).
Native American culture is often touched on briefly in high school history classes, but the topic of Native American Civil Rights is largely overlooked. From the Crow Creek massacre in 1325, to the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, and beyond, there are many events that have shaped the country we live in today (3, 4).
You might know that Native Americans were not considered citizens until the 1920s but you might not have heard of Standing Bear v. Crook (2). Standing Bear, chief of the Ponca, brought a lawsuit against the U.S. Army for “forcibly removing Indian people from their homelands” (2). Prior to the lawsuit, the Ponca had agreed to vacate all of their land except for one spot, “the land around the Niobrara River in Nebraska,” which the government then accidentally gave to the Sioux (2).
After receiving no help or sympathy from the government, Standing Bear led a 2-month march in the middle of winter, leading his people from their relocation in Oklahoma back to their home in Nebraska (2). When the army arrived to remove the Ponca from Nebraska, Standing Bear brought his famous lawsuit and won-- the judge ruled that “An Indian is a person within the meaning of the law, and there is no law giving the Army authority to forcibly remove Indians from their lands” (2). Unfortunately, this ruling was ignored everywhere except in Standing Bear’s case.
The Tulsa Massacre
According to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, “the 1921 Attack on Greenwood was one of the most significant events in Tulsa’s history,” (6). After World War I, Tulsa’s Greenwood District, also known as “Black Wall Street” became a hub for affluent Black professionals (6). On May 30th, 1921, Dick Rowland, a young Black man, was riding in an elevator with Sarah Page, a young White woman (6). After different accounts of what happened in the elevator were stated, Dick Rowland was arrested for allegedly assaulting Sarah Page-- a claim with little to no evidence behind it (6).
An “inflammatory” report of this event in the newspaper on May 31 sparked a fight between the two large groups of Black and White people gathered outside the courthouse which held Rowland. Gunfire forced the group of Black citizens to retreat back to the Greenwood district, and the next day, Greenwood was “looted and burned by white rioters” (6). Martial law was declared and the National Guard arrived, arresting all Black Tulsans-- “Over 6,000 people were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days” (6).
Violence went on for a full 24 hours in what is often considered "the single worst incident of racial violence in American history."(7). At the end of it all, “35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, over 800 people were treated for injuries and contemporary reports of deaths began at 36. Historians now believe as many as 300 people may have died (6)”
The History of Birth Control
In 1914, “public health nurse” Margaret Sanger coined the term “birth control” at the start of her 40 year crusade to secure a woman’s right to prevent pregnancy (8). Over the course of this crusade, Sanger is taken to court, she founds the American Birth Control League, the “precursor” to Planned Parenthood (8). In 1920, she aligned herself with the newly popular eugenics movement, despite reportedly disagreeing with some of their ideas, and goes on to publicly state “birth control is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives” (8). Sanger paved the way for the first birth control pill, which hit shelves in 1960 (8).
But this historic moment was propped up by decades of human rights violations (9). In Puerto Rico, amidst an onslaught of coerced and involuntary sterilizations brought on by the rising tide of the eugenics movement, poor women were cornered into testing out the risky new birth control pill (9). These unwilling test subjects were forced to brave side effects such as blood clots, severe nausea, and deteriorating mental health (9). By 1965, a third of Puerto Rico’s mothers had been sterilized-- it was a common practice for new mothers to be involuntarily sterilized at the hospital after giving birth (9).
The data gathered from these operations and clinical trials was used to produce birth control pills still in use today. In the late 60's, medical journalist Barbara Seaman revealed testimony and research proving that the long term effects of the early Pill were much worse than anticipated, increasing women’s risk of heart attacks, strokes, and cancer as well as blood clots (8).
History of Women’s Colleges
The first college in the US to award women degrees of higher education that were considered equivalent to the degrees awarded to men was Georgia Female College, now called Wesleyan College (10). An overwhelming majority of the first women’s colleges before the American Civil War were in the South where, despite the then controversial theory that education might “unsex” a woman, “the strength of Southern gender norms encouraged wealthier parents to support women's higher education, as their daughters were unlikely to be led astray if they received a college degree” (11). After the Civil War, women’s attendance at college was increasingly encouraged as their “tax-paying parents” all over the country slowly understood that economic stability would be important for their daughters (11).
Arguably the most well-known women’s colleges are the “women’s Ivy League” schools, or the “Seven Sisters”: Vassar, Wellesley, Smith, Bryn Mawr, Barnard, Radcliffe, and Mt. Holyoke (Radcliffe merged with Harvard and Vassar eventually became coeducational) (11).
Women’s colleges were instrumental in lifting up generations of educated and empowered women, laying the groundwork for the women of today who make their mark everywhere from rocket science to the highest levels of government. Thanks to the advancements made to women’s education by women’s colleges all those years ago, women in Congress are able to focus on expanding social programs to extend a helping hand to those who need it, while new faces likes Shannon Freshour, Betsy Londrigan, and Gina Ortiz Jones campaign to continue these efforts.
One concern often raised in discussions about making the high school U.S. history curriculum more accurate is that it’s too negative, too harsh. But adding these important pieces of our history as a nation into the pot of common knowledge we hand our children will do a lot of good for the future of our country. It will prevent history from repeating itself, give children context to understand important current events like the Black Lives Matter movement, combat racism and promote empathy, and much more.
History is shaped by the author and the witness, which is why it’s important to vote! The people we elect are responsible for how we understand ourselves in the context of our history as a community and as a country.