Anyone who paid attention in a high school history class has heard this story: Slavery ended in the United States in 1865 when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It's got all the features of a great story -- patriotism, triumph over evil, and a tall, handsome hero with a penchant for cool hats. The only problem is, the story isn't exactly true.
Slavery didn't end in 1865, it was just made illegal. But modern-day slavery, now called human trafficking, still exists across America. The U.S. State Department estimates up to 17,000 people are trafficked -- enslaved -- in the U.S. each year.
Modern-day slavery is just as horrific as historical slavery -- people are forced to work on farms, in factories, or in the commercial sex industry. They have no rights, no ability to leave, and no control over their situation. And this industry affects school-age children -- one study from the University of Pennsylvania found up to 300,000 American children at risk for modern-day slavery in the form of child sex trafficking. So why do textbooks still teach the myth that slavery ended in 1865?
Incorporating modern-day slavery into school curriculum is important to me as a survivor of modern-day slavery, a mother, and an advocate for trafficked children. That's why I support the Change.org campaign calling on McGraw-Hill, one of the largest producers of history textbooks in the U.S., to amend their teaching that slavery ended in 1865 and include information about modern-day slavery. If we can correct this misinformation in textbooks, we'll be taking the first step toward educating children on modern-day slavery.
On a personal level, this issue matters to me as a person who was enslaved in America long after 1865. I was enslaved by a pimp at age 14, who used the vulnerability an unstable and abusive childhood in foster care had given me as a tool to force me into prostitution. He offered me attention and love, so I ran away from home to be with him. The abuse started almost instantly, and I survived it for over a year before escaping.
Now, as a mother, I've watched children learn about trafficking the hard way. My oldest daughter graduated from a prestigious high school in Northern Virginia. As a teenager, she has referred two of her classmates to Courtney's House, the Washington, DC shelter for child sex trafficking victims I run. As my daughter watched her peers become trapped and enslaved by pimps she asked me "Mom, why don't we learn about this in school?" It was a good question without a good answer.
But it's not just my daughter's high school teaching the myth that slavery in America ended centuries ago. Most high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools in the U.S. teach the same thing. And it's written in most history textbooks that slavery has an expiration date, and that date is far, far passed.
McGraw-Hill has several textbooks, including United States Adventures in Time and Place, World Issues, and Social Studies World History, which directly or indirectly present the end of the Civil War as the end of slavery in America. In doing so, they not only present an untrue statement, but miss a critical opportunity to educate children about how to protect themselves from modern-day slavery.
Kids and teens need comprehensive education about slavery so they can make informed decisions to protect themselves and their peers against would-be exploiters. That education starts with modern-day slavery in textbooks, but also includes the age-appropriate material in curriculum and education for parents. Education about human trafficking is key to preventing it, key to making sure I don't get any more referrals of child sex trafficking victims from my oldest daughter's high school or start getting them from my youngest daughter's middle school.
In less than a month, I'll be speaking to over 10,000 educators about the importance of teaching children and teens the truth about modern-day slavery, giving them the tools to make safe decisions, and educating them about the dangers they and their peers face. I hope to be able to announce that McGraw-Hill is taking the lead and working to set the record straight: that slavery didn't end in 1865, but still happens in America today.