By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League
Philadelphia's public school system is set to become the first in a major city to require that students take a course in African-American history in order to graduate from high school.
The course, which students will take in the tenth grade, was approved in February by a unanimous vote of the five-member school board. Students entering the ninth grade in Philadelphia high schools in September will be the first to have to meet the requirement.
The mandate marks the culmination of nearly four decades of efforts by community activists and parents to have the schools, two-thirds of whose students now are black, require such a course.
Not surprisingly, according to news reports, some opposition to the requirement has surfaced.
Actually, "opposition" may be too strong a word.
But it's important to explore that challenge because it comes from a significant white political figure—namely, the Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of representatives, John Perzel, who represents a Philadelphia district that is largely white. Rep. Perzel, who's strongly supported the school system on other issues, issued a letter calling the new course "unnecessary," expressed concern that it would "divide, rather than unite the district's student body," and told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he doubted many black Philadelphia students had any interest in Africa. "Most of these kids will never go to Africa. They have no affinity for Africa," he was quoted as saying.
I, for one, welcome Philadelphia school officials' forward-thinking action. And I welcome Rep. Perzel's comments—because they underscore the point made by Philadelphia's School superintendent, Paul G. Vallas to the New York Times:
"You cannot understand American history without understanding the African-American experience; I don't care what anybody says," said Vallas, who is white. "It benefits African-American children who need a more comprehensive understanding of their own culture, and it also benefits non-African-Americans to understand the full totality of the American experience."
Supt. Vallas is right.
Indeed, for those who think of African-American History and American History as completely separate and distinct fields, or of the former as merely ethnic-group cheerleading—the last year or so has offered a powerful and at times wrenching corrective.
Last spring the nation marked the fiftieth anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in the Brown school desegregation case—and many caustically noted that more African-American children attend de facto segregated schools today than attended legally segregated schools then.
July 2004 brought the fortieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and this year marks the fortieth anniversary of its twin, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These two acts not only marked the triumph of the Civil Rights Movement, they revolutionized American society as a whole.
Since January, too, we've seen in several different arenas how—happily in some; tragically in others; but always poignantly—African-American history and the history of the larger society are intertwined.
For example, February, Black History Month, brought the PBS documentary, "Slavery and the Making of America." It dramatized the profound importance of slavery to the American economy and the endurance of and resistance to slavery African-Americans, slave and free, and their white allies forged. Most of all, it underscored the conclusion historians James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, on whose book the series was based, drew: Slavery was no sideshow. It was the main event in American history.
March brought an event that was grandly celebratory. Jack Roosevelt Robinson, better known as Jackie Robinson, the legendary baseball player for the Brooklyn Dodgers who broke baseball's color barrier, was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, that body's highest honor.
There, in the august Capitol Rotunda, as wherever Jackie Robinson is spoken of, men holding powerful positions—including President Bush—spoke with heartfelt emotion not only of what Jackie Robinson had meant to the country but what he had meant to them as adolescents.
Of course, in recent weeks, we have been overwhelmed with reminders of how tightly the African-American experience is woven into the American experience: the indictment, trial and verdict in the case of the infamous 1964 murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi; the Senate resolution apologizing for its willful refusal in the early twentieth century to pass a federal anti-lynching law; and the continuing efforts to gain reparations for the pogrom which in 1921 destroyed Greenwood, the prosperous black neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, among others.
The Philadelphia schools' decision is not exclusionary. It is academically and socially vital. In fact, I support that greater attention be paid in our schools' history courses to the specific experiences of all of America's racial and ethnic groups and how they've come to fit into the great American mosaic.
This isn't a brief for "division." Rather, it's a frank acknowledgement that we can't honestly face our present and our future until we've honestly faced our past.
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