African American History Courses Mandated In Major City’s Schools

While much of the country looks to ban critical race theory, one school district makes African American History classes a requirement.

By Erika Hanson | Published

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African American History

Philadelphia made history in 2005 when the city public schools mandated an African American history course be taught. Over 15 years later, the city is looking to revamp the course. At a time when much of the nation is looking to ban critical race theory teachings, it’s a large investment for The Quaker City.

Implemented nearly two decades ago, Philadelphia was the first in the nation to mandate all public school students take an African American history course. As it was designed, students within the cities public school districts take a course on the subject matter during freshmen (now sophomore) year of high school. According to an article posted by The New York Times in 2005, The School Reform Commission voted the mandate in a 5-0 vote for the district’s 53 high schools. At the time, the courses outline focused on how Africans became Americans through the colonial period, efforts of slaves to achieve freedom, the Civil War, and modern topics like African Americans’ economic development, civil rights movements, and modern black nationalist movements in both the United States and Africa. 

As Philadelphia prepares to broaden there African American history teachings, the plan to revise the efforts was first discussed at a Board of Education meeting for the 2020 adoption of a set of “goals and guardrails”. Furthermore, the board’s goal was to dismantle any racist practices found within the school districts in wake of the growing racial tensions throughout the nation. But that’s not to say the district wasn’t already way ahead of the game.

Philadelphia “was leading the way before the political environment we’re existing in right now,” said Ismael Jimenez, the social studies curriculum specialist that’s heading the initiative to update the course via Chalkbeat. However, Jimenez and other educators in Philadelphia feel there is plenty of room for improvement. Currently, the African American history course uses a standardized textbook not updated since 2011. Furthermore, the course has differed depending on which individual teacher is heading the class. “I recognized the gap from when the course was first implemented and where we’re at today,” Jiminez added.

African American History

Heading the changes to Philadelphia’s African American history course will be a group of veteran teachers charged with investing in extensive professional development. The group is looking into lectures and workshops from African study experts like Bettina Love and Hasan Jeffries. They also aim to focus on the  “intellectual genealogy” of the African diaspora, or emigration, along with Black leadership in the United States. To this, Jiminez said, “We want students to understand how ideas of race were developed differently throughout the world depending on the orientation of European enslavers’ shifting definitions based on the size of enslaved African populations.”

Jiminez said the plan is to implement some, if not all, of the new initiatives into next year’s African American history courses districtwide. With great ambitions, he hopes that the cities details Black history curriculum will be a “centerpiece” by 2025. However, the course continues to receive backlash from some in the community. 

Even when the African American history course was first mandated in 2005, some harshly opposed it. When first implemented, critics said the mandate would further polarize the city for focusing attention on just one race and not dealing with other ethnic groups that make up the city’s diverse population. As initiatives and legislation throughout the country aim to ban critical race theory from public school curriculums, Philadelphia has surely felt pressure as recent legislation within the state took aim at limiting racial teachings in schools.  Known as HB 1532, the legislation could still have an impact on Philadelphia’s big initiative, as the bill still remains in lieu. 

Currently, Philadelphia is one of the only school districts that make an African American history class a mandate for students to graduate. New Jersey recently made history with a similar story. Cherry Hill Public Schools became the first district in the Garden State to mandate similar classes as a prerequisite to graduation. Across the nation, public schools that do mandate any Black history teachings often only require the subject to be broached for a period of time in history classes.