When Cherry Hill seventh grader Ebele Azikiwe told her mother about a Black history lesson, she was surprised by the response. It was virtually the same lesson her mother learned 20 years ago at the same school.
Ebele, 12, like many of her peers across the region, has been on a mission to change how Black history is taught. She wrote a letter to her principal and last month testified via Zoom at the Statehouse about a bill that would make sweeping changes to the curriculum.
“I hope that it will catch on in other districts and states,” said Ebele, who attends Beck Middle School in Cherry Hill. “Black history is history and it’s a history that everybody should know.”
New Jersey lawmakers approved a bill last month to change how public schools teach Black history and hold them more accountable. If signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy it would require lessons about racism and social justice and contributions made by prominent African Americans from the past to the present like Kamala Harris, the first woman, and person of Black and South Asian descent elected vice president.
“Our children will learn about Black history and not just being a slave,” said Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D., Hudson), one of the bill’s sponsors. “We will know the contributions that Black people continue to do.”
The new law will complement the state’s Amistad law, which requires public schools to incorporate African American history. Her bill will put the Amistad Commission under the state Department of Education, tighten regulations and oversight, and mandate professional development for teachers.
Students in high schools across the region have been pushing for changes this year after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. They want schools to address systemic racism and implicit bias among staff and students.
New Jersey and Pennsylvania require history to be taught, but districts decide the content of their courses.
“With this legislation, there is no excuse,” McKnight said.
Meanwhile, the Cherry Hill School District is moving forward with a plan to become the first in New Jersey to mandate that students take an African American history course in order to graduate. Students proposed the course after organizing a Black Lives Matter protest in the spring.
The predominantly white school system would be the first in the state with such a requirement, according to the New Jersey Department of Education. Many schools teach Black history, but not as a prerequisite for graduation. In Philadelphia, a course in African American history, including the civil rights movement, is a graduation requirement.
Farrah Mahan, Cherry Hill’s curriculum director, said the district has hired history professors from Stockton University and the University of Pennsylvania to help develop the course. Students “need to see themselves in the curriculum,” she said.
It has not yet been determined what year students would be expected to take the class. The district is also reviewing its Black history curriculum and textbooks used for lower grades, she said.
“We are evolving with the times,” Mahan said. “This is just another example of where we are. It’s everyone’s history”
Cherry Hill, the 11th-largest public school district in the state, enrolls about 11,000 students. The district is 57% white, 18% Asian, 13% Hispanic, and 8% Black.
Mahan said the new course would be offered for the 2021-22 school year. Cherry Hill already has an elective African American studies class that is offered for dual credit through Stockton University.
Younger students also should be taught more comprehensive Black history to help dispel stereotypes about African Americans, said Ebele, who heads the youth division of the New Jersey Chapter of Rise Against Hate, an advocacy group. She said she was partly motivated to advocate for changes after her stepfather was stopped by police because of mistaken identity.
“There is so much to share, to help awaken people,” she told lawmakers. “If people were taught early we aren’t a threat but simply human it will make a huge difference.”
State officials have said it is unclear how many of the state’s 600 public school districts are complying with the 2002 Amistad law. The law honors the enslaved Africans who gained their freedom after overthrowing the crew of the slave ship Amistad in 1839.
Pleasantville first-grade teacher Tamar LaSure-Owens, who has been leading a charge to infuse Black history into everyday lessons, believes the latest legislation would help teachers better present historically accurate and culturally sensitive information about all races.
“We need training,’ said LaSure-Owens, who has helped develop a model Black history curriculum at the Leeds Avenue School. “We need a curriculum that we can put our hands on.”