CHEYENNE – A freshman Wyoming legislator suggested Wednesday that there are two sides to the history of American slavery, and that Black Americans are “stuck” in a mentality he called “worse than slavery itself.”
“Slavery was something that shouldn’t have happened in America, but it did. But we’ve created slavery into a place that has created a position of being stuck, in my opinion, for a people group,” Rep. Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland) told lawmakers Wednesday. “And that’s a sad place to be. And that was probably, in my opinion, worse than the slavery itself, because we have created a place where people cannot get free from because of their past.
“So slavery needs to be discussed,” he added. “It needs to be brought forward and the different views, that slavery was not maybe what it has been painted as in this nation, completely.”
Haroldson made the comments as he presented members of the House Education Committee with HB-177 – Education-Understanding federal and state government, a bill that would rewrite parts of Wyoming’s public schools curriculum.
Haroldson told his fellow lawmakers the bill was inspired by a lack of civics knowledge he had seen exhibited by Wyoming high school students, and as a response to what he described as a system that is “very much tilting more towards a liberal view of education.”
The measure would require Wyoming public schools to not only educate schoolchildren on the United States Constitution — which is already required by law — but also on a number of “threats encountered by the democratic republic and free society,” a list that includes “identity politics,” corruption in government, religious discrimination and “the political extremisms of fascism and communism.”
“I don’t believe that [students are] getting a fully well-rounded view of the founding of this nation,” Haroldson, a pastor, told his fellow lawmakers.
He listed a lack of knowledge of the U.S. Constitution among his concerns as well as what he views as an overemphasis of the subject of structural racism.
Haroldson was stumped, however, when pressed on his own knowledge of the Constitution.
“Do you know what the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution is?” Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) asked Haroldson as he presented the bill.
“I would have to look at it right now ma’am,” he responded.
“It’s the right to vote for women,” she said. “And it’s not included in your bill. So I’m curious about that.”
It’s not the first time Haroldson has made incendiary and insensitive comments. At an anti-mask rally at the Wyoming Capitol earlier this winter, Haroldson compared statewide mask orders to the Holocaust, telling an interviewer “today it’s masks and mandates, tomorrow it’s rail cars and ovens.”
While the bill failed to advance on a 7-2 vote, some committee members expressed interest in his ideas, including Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow.
Though she offered no comment on the language used in the bill itself, Balow told lawmakers she supported the bill “in concept.” School districts in Wyoming often set their own civics curriculum, she said, adding that purportedly reliable sources of information like the Pulitzer Center have boosted materials like the 1619 Project as acceptable history curriculum.
The 1619 Project is a reporting package by the New York Times that has been maligned by conservatives for its mission to “reframe” the conversation around slavery in American schools. Rather than the promotion of the United States as a racially harmonious society, the 1619 Project argues American society was built on the spoils of slave labor that has continued to have ripple effects throughout the nation’s history, laying the foundation for massive disparities between whites and Blacks that continue to persist today.
“I do think the directive from the Legislature to teach American exceptionalism is important,” Balow said. “Do I support the specifics on page four [of the bill]? I’m not sure that’s for me to decide.”
Other educators — including the state’s two largest education organizations — opposed the bill, saying it offers prescriptive guidelines for curriculum that don’t exist for other subjects like math or science.
Brian Farmer, a former civics teacher and director of the Wyoming School Board Association, told lawmakers the bill does not even begin to cover the content of the curriculum he taught as a teacher.
Tate Mullen, of the Wyoming Education Association, added there are already numerous, unbiased civics education initiatives in Wyoming schools and that while he would love to expand those efforts, “this is not the way.”
Ultimately, only Connolly spoke out against Haroldson’s comments explicitly.
“The discussion regarding slavery that has happened I find very, very problematic,” Connolly said after her vote. “And I’ll just leave it at that.”
Ed. note: This story has been updated with a more complete transcription of Rep. Haroldson’s comments.