Eliot Elementary School students in Ann Shisler’s second-grade class raise their hands to answer a question as they read “Ona Judge Outwits the Washingtons: An Enslaved Woman Fights for Freedom,” on Feb. 6. Judge lived right over the bridge from Eliot in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, after escaping slavery. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

ELIOT — On a recent morning, 18 second-graders sat scattered across a rug woven into a colorful U.S. map. They looked up at their teacher, Ann Shisler, who sat in a blue velvet chair. Shisler was reading from a picture book about Ona Judge, who was enslaved by George Washington and escaped to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a city less than 15 minutes away from their classroom.

Eliot Elementary is one of numerous Maine schools that have worked for years to incorporate diverse stories and perspectives into their lesson plans. To make that effort statewide, Maine legislators passed a law in 2021 requiring all K-12 schools to teach African American studies.

This year, lawmakers are proposing a bill to make sure all schools are complying, and to give them the resources to do so well. The bill would provide funding and support, such as professional development for teachers. The education committee voted late last month to recommend it, and it now awaits votes in the House and Senate.

“Since the passage of (the African American studies) bill we’ve understood that the next step is to ensure support and accountability around its implementation,” said House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, Maine’s first Black speaker, in written testimony. Ross sponsored both the original bill and the new legislation to strengthen it.

Maine’s initiative is part of a national movement to teach students about the experiences and perspectives of historically marginalized groups, to provide them with more accurate history and create a more accepting society. At least 12 states have similar programs in place.

At a legislative hearing on the 2024 bill, more than a dozen people spoke in support, while no one spoke in opposition.


Meanwhile, many Republican-led states are moving in the opposite direction. More than 20 have imposed restrictions on teaching about race or other topics that could be considered divisive, like gender and sexual orientation. Supporters of these restrictions typically argue that these subjects are better broached at home by parents.


Shisler’s class listened intently as she read. When she stopped to ask questions, some blurted out answers, unable to contain their excitement. Others raised their hands, desperate to participate.

It was clear when they spoke that they knew about the underground railroad, what it meant to be a slave, and the risks Judge took in escaping.

When Shisler finished the story she asked the students to go back to their desks and write four to six sentences about what they learned.

Carter Hatheway, center, rests his head in his hand as he listens to his teacher, Ann Shisler, read a book about an escaped slave. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

At Eliot Elementary, as at many schools, educators don’t teach Black history as a separate unit but include it wherever it fits. Shisler chose to teach Ona Judge’s story because they are learning about local history and Judge lived near their hometown, which was a stop on the underground railroad.


None of the students in Shisler’s class are Black. Only 1.6 percent of Eliot’s population of 7,000 is Black, according to U.S. Census Data.

But that doesn’t make learning about diverse experiences and perspectives any less important, said LaGarrett King, director of the Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education at the University of Buffalo’s Graduate School of Education. That education is key to maintaining a functioning democracy and creating an understanding and equitable society, he said.

“It helps us understand the humanity of each other,” said King.


Back at his desk, 8-year-old Porter Vets began furiously writing down everything he’d learned about Ona Judge – about her enslavement, her escape and her fight to avoid being recaptured.

“Look how much I’ve written,” he said enthusiastically, holding up his work to Shisler. “Wow, I’m going to need another piece of paper.”


Vets said he enjoyed learning about Judge and thought she was brave for escaping.

“It’s good she escaped because being a slave isn’t good,” he said. “You can be punished and have to do things you don’t want to do, and people should be able to do what they want to do.”

Second-grader Maya Kurtenbach, center, writes down what she learned about Ona Judge after listening to her teacher, Ann Shisler, read, “Ona Judge Outwits the Washingtons: An Enslaved Woman Fights for Freedom,” in their classroom at Eliot Elementary School on Feb. 6. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Teachers around the state have been working for years, even decades, to build into their curriculums a variety of diverse experiences, perspectives and stories.

Speaker of the House Rachel Talbot Ross. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The bill moving through the Legislature now would bolster that work by paying for continued education programs and creating an advisory council that would assist school administrators, build professional development opportunities and gather and organize resources to help schools teach both African American studies and Wabanaki studies.

Talbot Ross, a Democrat, said she decided to include Wabanaki studies in the bill because a law requiring schools to teach Wabanaki studies that passed more than 20 years ago lacked enforcement and was largely fruitless.

Many districts have failed to include Wabanaki studies in their curriculums consistently, according to a 2021 report by the Wabanaki Alliance, the Abbe Museum, the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.


Those who support the new law think funding will only strengthen it.

“L.D. 2001 is a necessary step to ensure that L.D. 1664 [the 2021 bill] is more than just equity window dressing for the state of Maine,” said Larissa Malone, a former associate professor and chair of teacher education at the University of Southern Maine.

“The passage of L.D. 2001 will provide continuing educational resources for current educators, strengthen African American history advocacy within the Maine Department of Education, and provide a way to understand the progress on teaching African American history across the state.”

King, the University of Buffalo Black history and racial literacy educator, agrees.

Portland High School teacher Rosa Slack fries chicken next to her student, Roseline Dimbaka, during an African American history elective class. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Black history should be unique, holistic and expand aspects of blackness,” he said. ” It shouldn’t just be another social studies course with more Black people.”

To do it right, teachers need continued professional development and ways to collaborate with educators across the state, King said.



The Portland Public School district has already created a districtwide Wabanaki studies curriculum and is working on organizing new Black history materials, including children’s books, videos and primary sources, for its educators to use.

Like Eliot, Portland has long included a diversity of cultures and experiences in its curriculum. But for the past two years it has offered a class focused exclusively on African American studies. It’s one of a wide array of high-school electives, including psychology, public speaking and personal finance.

This semester, 10 students are enrolled in the elective at Portland High School.

Mauro Pedro, a sophomore at Portland High School, pours a cup of sweet tea for senior Anna Laplante during an African American studies elective class on Feb. 9. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

One day this month, they gathered excitedly around a table in a basement classroom. Smells wafted from pots and trays of the traditional Black American dishes they had prepared. Grabbing paper plates, they served themselves crispy fried chicken legs and plantains, heaps of macaroni and cheese, thick slices of fluffy cornbread, spoonfuls of collard greens. They filled their glasses with sweet tea with lemon slices.

They are learning about the African diaspora and about how food was one of the ways slaves in the United States maintained their culture.


Most of the students are seniors. They signed up for a variety of reasons. One needed a history credit to graduate. Another, who is mixed race, lives with the white side of his family and wants to know more about the Black side. Some wanted to learn more about their own history and culture, others about the history and culture of their friends. Many decided to take the class because they like the teacher, Rosa Slack.

Roseline Dimbaka, 17, was in charge of frying the plantains. She knew how to do it. Her mom taught her years ago and she frequently makes them to snack on.

Dimbaka, who is Black, was born in Angola, grew up in Brazil and has lived in the United States for seven years. She said she initially was hesitant to take the class, worried that it would be boring or just repeat history she already knew.

“But Ms. Slack is actually making it really interesting,” she said, as if that was a bit surprising.

Portland High School senior Roseline Dimbaka makes plantains during her African American history class. She was born in Angola and grew up in Brazil, but said she wanted to learn more about African American history. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

She has learned some African American history in her other classes, she said. In English, she’s reading “Things Fall Apart,” by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, about African society and colonialism. But she said she’s never felt as comfortable as she has in this class learning about African American history and sharing her own thoughts and experiences.

She finds all the students engaged, nonjudgmental and interested.

The semester just began, so Dimbaka and her classmates have only scratched the surface. But Dimbaka said she’s excited to talk more and learn more and be able to pass what she learns on to others.

“It’s really interesting to learn about African American history,” she said. “Because I’m part of it.”

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.