05/11/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Putting Black History in Context

The actions of three Los Angeles teachers at the Wadsworth Avenue Elementary school who gave children photographs of O.J. Simpson, Dennis Rodman and RuPaul to hold during a parade honoring black history month as a prank earned a suspension for the educators, a rebuke from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and a public apology from school principal Lorraine Abner to the parents of schoolchildren.

The national response from pundits, readers and viewers of the story saying the children should have carried photographs of other figures in black history like Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, and Oprah Winfrey indicate this problem isn't limited only to Wadsworth Avenue Elementary school.

A photograph of Nelson Mandela in a black history parade is an improvement over RuPaul. But, if teachers must go outside the U.S. for African heroes, Major General Abram Petrovich Gannibal of the Russian Army would have been a better pick. The Ethiopian native was taken from Istanbul and raised in the court of Peter the Great of Russia. He became a major figure in Czarist Russia, was friends with Voltaire and the grandfather of Alexander Pushkin, who became the founding father of Russian literature. The point being the difference between modern role models and historical figures is a vast one.

Slavery, abolitionists and the Civil Rights Movement dominate black history in American classroom programs. While those eras most certainly should have a major role in official texts, it can't be at the expense of a legacy encompassing more than 375 years of North American history. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights pioneers fought to see their ancestors' contributions integrated into the mainstream story of this nation as well as obtain equal rights for themselves.

It isn't difficult for teachers to find figures in black American history young children can understand. The peanut butter sandwich wouldn't have been around without George Washington Carver - a man Time magazine in 1941 dubbed the "Black Leonardo" for his inventions, paintings and cultural contributions. Nor is it difficult to find the story of black chef and restaurateur George Crum who is credited with inventing the potato chip in 1853. It's an easy history lesson for a teacher with stage props found in many 4th grade lunchboxes and a theme easily continued with traffic light and gas mask inventor Garrett Morgan.

From colonial writer Benjamin Banneker to William Clark's black slave "York" in the Lewis and Clark expedition, United States history is riddled with black accomplishment deserving of classroom attention. The history of the American West wouldn't be complete without the stories of black cowboys like Nat Love and Pro Rodeo Hall of famer Bill Pickett or Buffalo soldiers Sgt. George Jordan and Lt. Henry Flipper, who was West Point's first black graduate. Achievement in the U.S. military notes men like Navy Medal of Honor recipient Robert Augustus Sweeney, who is the only black American to be twice awarded the Medal of Honor. He was one of 87 black soldiers and sailors to receive the nation's highest award and have done so in every war since the medal's creation. Only under the World War I and World War II administrations were Medals of Honor not directly presented and corrections later made to right the injustices.

Teachers and textbooks instructing students on the Civil Rights movement can't ignore figures like the first black federal judge and Virgin Islands Governor William Henry Hastie and inventor Dr. Charles Drew, who created the first blood banks that saved thousands of World War II soldiers in the U.K. and the U.S. Both of these men share the unique honor of resigning from national positions during World War II in service to the cause of Civil Rights in America. Hastie resigned as a civilian aid for Secretary of War Henry Stimson to protest segregated units and Dr. Drew resigned as Director of the Red Cross blood banks to protest the War Department's ordered segregation and transfusion of blood by race.

Without question, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Isabella Baumfree, also known as, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. deserve their rightful place in U.S. history, but they should not eclipse the contributions of other noteworthy black Americans in the classroom.

The actions of these three Los Angeles teachers did have an upside to it. It clearly shows why the U.S. needs a black history month in the United States. Simply firing or suspending the teachers and moving forward passes up an opportunity for a school system to redress a national problem with the way black contributions are included in United States history. As a condition for reinstatement, the superintendent of the Los Angeles School system might consider taking slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, athletics, and entertainment off the table and assigning these educators to design an authentic black history program their school and maybe others can implement.