Teaching About History

By Robert George Sprackland

Jerome Avery has probably climbed the stairs of the Philadelphia School District headquarters as often as those of most other buildings in the city. But he’s not a teacher, and he hasn’t been a student in the nation’s seventh-largest district since the 1967 school year -- the year he first walked up those stairs and out of a dark pit in his life.

“Until that time, I felt ashamed of myself, ashamed of black people,” Avery says. “I called it self-hate.”

The feeling was fed by a daily diet of images that either ignored or skewed the existence of America’s black population. “I don’t recall seeing a single black person in any of my textbooks unless we were talking about slavery,” he says.

At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Avery joined an estimated 3,500 students at Philadelphia’s administration building to demand better representation of African Americans, both in the curriculum and on the staff. Over the past four decades, he’s made the same call in no less than eight parent and activist organizations.

It goes without saying that Avery was pleased when the Philadelphia School Reform Commission converted a high school elective into a mandatory African and African-American history course. The change took effect this fall with the incoming freshman class.

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