Dr. Roni Dean-Burren, a Texas mother and education activist who made national headlines nearly a decade ago after calling out the publisher of her teenage son’s history textbook for whitewashing Black history by incorrectly referring to slaves as migrant “workers,” died on Friday. She was 46.
No cause of death was immediately reported.
Tributes to Dean-Burren have been steadily pouring in since news of her death began circulating on social media over the Thanksgiving weekend as the education community mourns a devastating champion of not just learning but Black youth learning.
After working as a high school English teacher in suburban Houston for a little more than a decade, Dean-Burren left Pearland High School to successfully pursue a doctorate in education, during which she ventured into education activism, a field in which she eventually became an icon.
Dean-Burren’s death comes amid a national debate over how – and if – to teach students Black history.
That fact is particularly relevant since Dean-Burren is widely remembered in part for how in 2015 she called out publishing giant McGraw-Hill Education by posting a video of her son’s 900-page textbook in which enslaved Africans were referred to as migrant workers.
“Many of you asked about my son’s textbook. Here it is,” Dean-Burren captioned her Facebook post. “Erasure is real y’all!!! Teach your children the truth!!!”
The video invited a swift backlash on McGraw-Hill, which soon publicly apologized and admitted that its language in the textbook “did not adequately convey that Africans were both forced into migration and to labor against their will as slaves.”
Dean-Burren recalled her 15-year-old freshman son, Coby Burren, texting her a photo of the page in his geography textbook that simply referred to slaves on plantations as “workers” instead of kidnapped Africans who were relegated to being pieces of property by providing free labor against their wills.
The teen’s text offered a tongue-in-cheek message to his mom: “we was real hard workers, wasn’t we.”
Dean-Burren explained her outrage over the textbook to the New York Times.
“It talked about the U.S.A. being a country of immigration, but mentioning the slave trade in terms of immigration was just off,” Dean-Burren said. “It’s that nuance of language. This is what erasure looks like.”
Dean-Burren said during an interview with HuffPost that she didn’t know her Facebook post would go viral and added she appreciates the company for apologizing.
However, she also said that she believed the damage had already been done since more than 100,000 copies of the inaccurate textbook had already been provided to the Pearland Independent School District.
At the same time, though, Dean-Burress won a serious victory for the education community that has prioritized accurately depicting world history.
Dean-Burren said in an interview published last year that her work as an education activist had an adverse effect on certain aspects of her career.
“I’ve always been vocal about the racism that impacts Black students in our schools. I’ve not been afraid to call out publishers, superintendents and principals,” Dean-Burren told Voyage Houston. “I know that makes some schools nervous. I know I’ve lost out on jobs because I refuse to be quiet about the lack of diversity in school leadership, teaching staff and in the books students read.”
The local education community embraced her activism.
“Roni epitomizes the idea that one person can make a difference,” University of Houston Curriculum and Instruction College (CUIN) clinical professor Margaret Hale said at the time. “By listening to her son’s concerns and then voicing those publicly, she has affected change with a major textbook publisher and shown not only students, but adults as well, that words matter. Her advocacy and a passion are a model for all of us in education.”
Dean-Burren subsequently became unofficially known as “the Black book lady,” but not because of her activism surrounding the faulty textbook.
She said she was “most proud of that name” because it came from triumphing over tragedy:
During Hurricane Harvey, I caught wind that many Black children had lost all of their books in the flood. I organized an online giving program and asked people to fill an Amazon wish list full of books. It was such a positive response that I received over 1000 books. A few weeks after the flood I had a book giveaway at my church. The books were free to any black child that came out and they could take as many books as they wanted. I had so many books that I couldn’t give them all the way in one day and so I began carrying them around in my car and my purse everywhere I went. So when I go to schools, I’m able to give books away to kids all the time. And so they called me the black book lady because all of the books that I gave away are by black authors and illustrators.
Throughout it all, Dean-Burren humbly accepted all the accolades and neatly summed up her life’s work.
“I think the work is ongoing,” Dean-Burren told CUIN, where she was a doctoral student at the time. “For me it means to never ever, ever quit. It means that I have to keep talking about the things that matter.”
A tribute fund has been set up in Dean-Burren’s name. Donations can be made by clicking here.
According to a Legacy obituary, Dean-Burren’s funeral is scheduled to be held on Saturday at Silverlake Church in Pearland, Texas.
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