The Philadelphia Public School African American History Graduation Requirement
To this day, the Philadelphia Public School District is the only school district in the country in which African American history is a graduation requirement. Other districts require units on African American history throughout American history classes, celebrations of black history month, or offer electives in black studies, however, you can still go through high school without receiving a comprehensive education in African American history. As a product of the Philadelphia School District, I know what a difference the African American graduation requirement can make to students’ educational experience, especially students of color. Even with all its benefits, to get the African American history graduation requirement, members of the Philadelphia community had to fight long, hard battles.
The story of African American history in the Philadelphia public schools started in the late 1960’s. At the time, and still in many school districts today, African American and black history was thrown away into American and world history textbooks in few sentences about slavery and the Civil war. To combat this, students took to the streets on November 10, 1967 in the largest high school student walkout in history. There demands included: having courses focused on African American history, having greater numbers of African American teachers and administrators, being able to wear traditional African clothing to school, and being exempt from saying the pledge of allegiance,” to name a few. The walkout and proceeding protests were soon stopped by the police commissioner at the time, Frank Rizzo. A known bigot, Rizzo was police commissioner during the first MOVE incident and while hiring of black police officers declined sharply. His relationship to the black community of Philadelphia was volatile at best. This can be seen through his handling of the walkouts when he was quoted saying to another police officer: “Get their black asses.” Rizzo soon broke up the protests and arrested 57 people. The issue didn’t resurface as Rizzo remained police commissioner and proceed to graduate to mayor. That is, until 2005.
In 2005, the school district was 65% black and community members, including those who has participated in the 1967 walkout, revamped the call for African American studies in education. A curricula was created, written by teachers in the district with the help of community members, that began with a discussion of the African continent before the time of slavery up through the civil rights movement. It was to incorporate not only the deemed “highlights” of black history, but also culture and history of the black diaspora and intellectual discussions about race. Since 2005, the structure of the course has rarely changed and school district officials, students, and teachers alike revel in the benefits of the class. Still, as aforementioned, it remains the only requirement of its kind in the country. It is important to remember that the material we learn was chosen for a reason and to pay attention to what is left out. It may be the material needed the most.