Most years, I spend the Fourth of July holiday enjoying the company of my family and friends; watching the joy on a grandchild’s face during a fireworks display; and reflecting on my whereabouts during the many July 4 holidays I’ve experienced.
This year, my social time was distanced; fireworks shows were canceled; and I was thinking of a specific July 4 in Montgomery County history I recently read about — the day the last recorded lynching took place not far from where I now sit in Rockville as the superintendent of schools.
Recently, a colleague shared with me that the location of the current MCPS central office building on Hungerford Drive and Mannakee Street is close to the location of the last lynching in our county. I was forwarded an article from The Washington Post that shared the details of this horrible event.
According to the article, on July 4, 1896, a lynch mob of 20 to 30 masked men brutally killed Sidney Randolph, a 28-year-old Black man. Mr. Randolph was accused of killing a 7-year-old white girl.
The article goes on to say that the evidence against Mr. Randolph was circumstantial and conflicting, and that he lacked a motive to commit the crime. Yet, police arrested him and a mob saw fit to hang him from a chestnut tree.
While this horrific lynching occurred more than a century ago, my heart sank and my anger was intense as if it had just happened. My thoughts raced forward in time to the 2020 killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.
In the last 124 years, we have traveled to the bottom of the ocean and into space; created the internet; and sequenced the human genome. Yet, as a country, we are still unable to protect, value and respect the life and liberty of Black Americans, specifically Black men.
I believe Montgomery County has made progress toward this goal by being on the forefront of desegregation of schools in the 1950s; by years of equity policies and initiatives in the school system; and by the county’s passage of a Racial Equity and Social Justice law in 2019.
However, recent social media posts from students of color in our school system that detail their experiences with racism and bias in our schools are a stark reminder that there is much more work to be done. In some of these posts, students shared allegations of bias, stereotyping and racism at the hands of their peers and, more disturbingly, our staff members.
I am grateful to those who stepped forward to share their painful, personal stories. They help us do the work that must be done.
Many of the experiences highlighted in the social media posts reflect what research has confirmed — implicit bias exists across the educational spectrum, including preschool. The research also shows that this bias can contribute to disparities in academic outcomes for students of color.
I have no reason to believe that students and educators in our county are immune. Moreover, we know that public education institutions, including MCPS, have only taught a small fraction of what students should know about the Black experience in the United States, including the barriers that exist to full access and opportunity in education.
The good news is we know that bias can be interrupted and curricula can be enhanced to achieve these goals. The MCPS staff is working to enhance our mandatory equity and cultural proficiency training and practices. Work is underway to integrate cultural proficiency and implicit bias training with effective instructional practice and sound content knowledge into all professional learning experiences.
By changing the experience of our students of color through culturally responsive relationships and expanding learning opportunities, we can truly unleash the potential of our students.
Additionally, we have made significant changes to our elementary and middle school literacy and math curricula. Next, we must work on high school literacy, as well as social studies and other curricula at all levels. Providing curricula that meet the needs of our students and creating equitable access and opportunity across the system must continue to be the priority.
While we have made progress in many areas, we must work with a greater sense of urgency and purpose. I am not naive, but I am committed. We will not be able to eradicate racism overnight.
Based on the story of Sidney Randolph and the aforementioned social media posts, racism and bias have long roots. But I believe we can and must move the needle quickly.
I expect to see serious progress toward all of our students feeling valued and learning at their full potential by the time July 4 arrives next year. We cannot wait another century for change.
Jack Smith is the superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools.
Note: Montgomery County Public Schools translated Superintendent Jack Smith’s essay into Spanish. The translation appears below.