How much do Americans think they know about Black history?

Linley SandersData Journalist
February 17, 2021, 7:15 PM UTC

February marks Black History Month as a time to celebrate the history, achievements, and legacy of Black Americans. A new YouGov poll shows that many white Americans do not have a strong understanding of historical events that focused on Black Americans, even though there is overwhelming support for teaching Black history in schools.

Data shows that most Americans are confident in their knowledge of the Civil Rights movement (81%) and the Civil War and emancipation of slaves (79%). Three-quarters of Americans say they know a lot or a little about the Underground Railroad (78%), while two-thirds are familiar with the 1963 March on Washington (67%) and The Montgomery Bus Boycott (67%).  

Of the topics surveyed, one-quarter of Black Americans (24%) said they know a lot or a little about all of them, compared to 18% of white Americans.

Americans say they do not know much, if anything, about Nat Turner's revolt of 1831 (62%), in which Turner led a group of slaves to kill slave-owners. In the aftermath, Turner and his accomplices were killed, and Black people who had nothing to do with the rebellion were murdered by white mobs.  

Most Americans know very little about The Three-Fifths Compromise (56%), the arrangement where Black Americans were counted as only three-fifths of a person for the purposes of Congressional representation. Americans are also unfamiliar with the Great Migration (55%), which refers to the decades where Black Americans left the South and migrated to cities in the Northeast, Midwest, and West.  

Black Americans (57%) are more likely than white Americans (33%) to say they know about Nat Turner’s revolt and the Montgomery Bus Boycott (81% vs 65%).

Should Black history be taught in schools? 

Four in five Americans (80%) strongly or somewhat support having Black history as a part of their local school's history curriculum. About one in eight (13%) oppose the inclusion of Black history in curriculum, and one in 14 Americans (7%) are uncertain. Three-quarters of Black Americans (77%) strongly support this, compared to half of white Americans (52%). 

Americans with a higher education background, such as those with a postgraduate degree (93%), are especially likely to support the inclusion of Black history in their local curriculum. Half (50%) of those with a high school degree or less strongly support it, compared to a majority of those with some college education (57%) or those with a four-year college degree (55%). 

Within the American history curriculum, two-thirds of Americans believe the Civil War and emancipation (68%), the Civil Rights Movement (68%), and the Underground Railroad (65%) should be covered. About half of US adults want the Atlantic Slave Trade (54%), Jim Crow laws (54%), the March on Washington (53%), and the Montgomery Bus Boycott (52%) noted in history classes.  

There is a decline for covering the events Americans are less familiar with — but majorities who are familiar with each event support them being taught in schools. The lowest level of support comes for Nat Turner’s revolt: 32% of Americans overall and 52% of those who know a lot or a little about the event believe it should be covered in school.

For more on this poll, email uspress@yougov.com

Methodology: The total sample size for this poll was 1309 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between January 28 – 30, 2021.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all US adults (aged 18+).  

Image: Getty