It was a moment of clarity on a crowded intersection in North Beach.
“This is interesting. I would have come to school for this,” said one teen.
“Yea, why didn’t we learn about this during Black History Month,” replied another.
At the moment I had been concerned with making sure the group of ten made it through the crosswalk before the light turned red.
However, I couldn’t miss the fact that this walking tour of black historic sites had achieved the very objective I had sought.
During the summer session of Potrero Progress, a biotechnology awareness academy, we intentionally located our classes in a downtown office building on Montgomery Street, not only to imbue the students with a sense of the future, but also to immerse them in the past.
The two teens answered a question which the federal and state governments have been throwing billions at finding an solution for — closing the achievement gap.
For 20 years, I’ve been opening eyes and minds through the presentation of California’s African-American heritage. I worked on me, so I’ve assumed it would have the same effect on anyone else.
Since the day Ray Taliaferro told me the state was named for a black warrior queen to the recent day when I located a still-extant house built by Mary Ellen Pleasant, there has been no shortage of wonder and amazement.
To move that heritage from the realm of hearsay to something credible, in 1991, I compiled the first anthology, Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, 1500-1900, 400 pages of primary sources, peer-reviewed scholarship and rarely seen artifacts and photos including the murals from the Room of the Dons.
Dr. Bruce Gaines, then president of the Los Angeles Alliance of Black School Educators, took a copy and noticed that his high school and community college black students raised their grades an average of two letter grades within 60 days after he shared the content.
We’ve added Volume 2, 1900-1950; Volume 3, 1950 to 2000 and Volume 4, The Black Queen: How African-Americans Put California on the Map and completed a 56:30 public television documentary Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California.
In 2008, I keynoted the California Council for Social Studies with a research study — Black Heritage as Gap Closer: California Educator Capacity to Provide Culturally Responsive Instruction in Social Studies.
The research in the field confirmed my experience, but also showed that only 10 percent of the teachers responding to the survey had been trained in how to engage the diverse student bodies with content like Our Roots Run Deep.
With the beginning of another school year, in the midst of challenging economic times, it is imperative that the materials which can spark student motivation, creativity and excellence be provided, particularly in schools with high proportions of African-American students.
There is no longer a margin for error for black students who are not well educated. Even the President has a law degree from Harvard and he’s catching it.
Although our objective during Potrero Progress was science mastery, we infused frequent tours of black historic sites in the downtown area.
Not only could they see where inventor Richard B. Spikes gained patents for the automatic transmission and torpedos from his barber shop on Pacific Street, but they could pass over the first black-owned bank in American history and the first jazz club.
The jaded cynicism which many students mistake for being “cool,” didn’t have a chance.
If you are in a school or library or after-school program and are really serious about making a difference, then take advantage of our Back to School discount on the four-volume Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California. We’ve updated Volume 2 with new photographs from our JazzGenesis: San Francisco and the Birth of Jazz exhibition, which are referenced in our new historical novel, Cakewalk