John D. Skief, 59, an educator and political activist who labored all his adult life to promote self-reliance among African Americans, died Saturday after an apparent heart attack at his West Philadelphia home, his family said.
His wife, Tonya, said Mr. Skief had complained he wasn't feeling well on Friday. He was out of bed, unable to sleep, she said, when the attack occurred early the next morning. She said he died about 6 a.m. at Albert Einstein Medical Center.
Mr. Skief was a promoter of the charter-school movement in Pennsylvania and was founder of Harambee Institute of Science and Technology, one of the first charter schools to be approved in Philadelphia, in 1997.
Harambee, which today has about 500 students, had its roots as an after-school program in 1974 in a storefront at 60th and Walnut Streets. Mr. Skief later introduced a full-day program during a city teachers' strike.
Mr. Skief had been introduced to the civil-rights struggle in the 1960s by his father, John D. Skief Sr., who had marched with Philadelphia NAACP leader Cecil B. Moore.
He was involved in a 12-year movement to elect the city's first black mayor beginning the year after his graduation from Cheyney University. He worked as a campaign organizer for Democrats Hardy Williams in 1971, Charles Bowser in 1975 and W. Wilson Goode in 1983. It was Goode who finally achieved the goal.
Goode, speaking yesterday in an interview, said Mr. Skief's educational achievements impressed him even more than his political activism.
"He was a passionate advocate for education of young African American students," Goode said. " . . . He went out of his way to make sure that kids got what they needed to succeed."
Mr. Skein continued to be active in mayoral politics until 1999, when he backed former state welfare secretary John White Jr. in an unsuccessful Democratic primary battle.
White said yesterday that Mr. Skief was an expert at training election-day workers on how to get out the vote for a candidate.
But like Goode, White said of Mr. Skief: "His passion was education."
Mr. Skief went to West Philadelphia's John Bartram High School. At Cheyney University, from which he graduated in 1970, he was a record-setting high jumper and a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity.
He began his career as a history teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School and later taught at three other city high schools: Edison, West Philadelphia and University City.
His interest in what his wife called "alternative" schools began with his growing conviction that "the public schools were not serving African Americans the way they should," she said.
He had been working to add a high-school program at the Harambee school, which now serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
His son Masai, 26, who teaches math and science at the school, said Mr. Skief hoped to begin a program next fall in which high school students would work online at home from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day, then go into the school building from 3:30 to 6. Saturday classes were also planned.
"He said he'd hang up his gloves and retire when he graduated his first senior class out of high school," Masai Skief said.
Besides his wife and son Masai, Mr. Skief is survived by three children: Terrell, 38; Kimberly, 35, and Kalima, 19. He had a son, Damani, who was shot to death in Philadelphia 10 years ago, his wife said.
A memorial service is planned to run from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Pinn Memorial Baptist Church, 54th Street and Wynnefield Avenue, West Philadelphia.