Fifty-five years ago, this month, Detroit Public Schools officials carried out an unprecedented and highly necessary measure. After Superintendent Samuel Brownell and the Board of Education were blasted by the local NAACP for providing to its students a history textbook that did not accurately portray African Americans during the U.S. Civil War, DPS’ Department of Social Studies was compelled to research and publish “The Struggle for Freedom and Rights: The Negro in American History.” The controversial textbook “Our United States” continued to be used but a 57-page supplemental booklet for seventh and eighth graders was also provided.
After our meeting last November, Dr. Nikolai Vitti, Detroit’s general superintendent, enthusiastically agreed to create the Detroit History Task Force. Vitti wholeheartedly agreed with me that students would benefit from more local history being taught in the classroom. He also wanted to couple my idea with his plan to increase the number of student visits to our region’s cultural and historical institutions. In January, I was later asked by DPSCD staff to submit a list of potential topics that could be used. Now, teachers are being identified to develop lesson plans for K-5 students in time for 2018-2019 school year.
Recent reporting suggests that today’s DPSCD textbooks are so old and out of date that students have been taking high-stakes standardized tests without fully understanding the material on which they are being tested. That’s crazy. The State of Michigan is largely to blame. Gubernatorial-appointed emergency managers have rule over the district for 15 of the last 18 years.
As DPSCD tosses out its outdated curriculum for one that is relevant and meet government guidelines, the time is right to include more local history that recognizes the contributions of area blacks, browns, Asians and others. Their triumphs and tragedies; our harmony and conflict.
After a long career as a journalist and public relations professional, I embarked on a journey several years ago to research and share the story of African Americans in Detroit. At age 45, I learned that people who look like me arrived in our regions long before the Underground Railroad during the pre-Civil War years.
In fact, Dr. Norman McRae, longtime Detroit Public Schools educator and Department of Social Studies administrator, wrote in his doctoral dissertation that blacks were residents in southeastern Michigan before our state was admitted into the union. His seminal research is presented in Blacks in Detroit, 1736 – 1833: A Search for Community on the Western Frontier.
In addition to blacks other racial and ethnic groups have been an important part of our local history. Abolitionists like William Lambert, an African American, and Shubael Conant, a white businessman and land owner, helped to found the Detroit Anti-Slavery Society in 1837. The late Michael George, a son of an Iraqi immigrant, along with his brothers co-founded Melody Farms Dairy Company in 1950. Raquel Castaneda-Lopez four years ago became the first Latinx member of the Detroit City Council.
History, however, shouldn’t only be about firsts and relegated to a box-checking exercise. There are important stories and lessons to be learned by the study of local history. A great example of this the award-winning Detroit Historical Society “Detroit ‘67” project. Using the 1967 Detroit rebellion as a backdrop, the project created a community learning experience that involved adults as well as school-aged children. Students like my son Jackson, a fourth grader at Detroit Chrysler Elementary, shouldn’t have to be college age to learn about the history of his community. He should be learning it now. Vitti’s Detroit History Taskforce can play an important part in that endeavor.
Ken Coleman is a Detroit-based author and historian