Black History, beyond Textbooks: As Standard Materials Improve, Teacher Finds Lively Ways to Fill in Gaps

By Dean, Mensah | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 22, 1996 | Go to article overview

Black History, beyond Textbooks: As Standard Materials Improve, Teacher Finds Lively Ways to Fill in Gaps


Dean, Mensah, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The other day, students in Sharon Musa's sixth-grade class had on their desks plastic sandwich bags filled with fatback, smok-ed ham hocks and rice, among other foodstuffs. It wasn't lunch time at Rudolph Elementary on Hamilton Street NW. Rather, Ms. Musa's students were in the middle of a lesson on slaves' eating habits.

Teaching the children was Ms. Musa's daughter, Rhonda Williams, a cultural anthropologist. She had brought other visual aids, including photos of 19th-century blacks, pamphlets and a hoecake - a flat bread made from cornmeal.

She did not use textbooks.

Ordinarily, Ms. Musa's history lessons in-clude textbooks. But during Black History Month, when teachers' lessons often bulge with extra helpings of black history, what's not in a textbook becomes obvious.

When Ms. Musa began teaching 27 years ago, textbooks dealt in depth with such historic figures as abolitionist Harriet Tubman, statesman Frederick Douglass and scientist George Washington Carver.

"Those were the three that they seemed to make sure we knew about," she says. "But the other ones that were equally important were not included in the books at all.

"And if they did talk about the civil rights movement or anything in the later time that might have been significant, it may have been one or two lines."

Time and textbooks have changed.

Today, much time is spent analyzing the nation's history textbooks, which often are a school's primary - sometimes only -source of information on American history. Owing to its captive audience, the textbook industry is healthy, garnering more than $4 billion in 1993.

"It's safe to say coverage of black history has expanded considerably. Now it comprises a very substantial subset of American history," says Gilbert T. Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, which evaluates textbooks and school curriculums.

Leading the competitive elementary and middle school field are Houghton Mifflin and Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, which make up nearly 60 percent of the market.

"Proud" and "complete" de-scribe how the companies view their coverage of black history. Spokesmen for both companies say there were problems in the past but that they have been corrected over time.

New language is being used to describe old information, says Roger Rogalin, publisher of Macmillan/McGraw Hill.

"Some of the older social-studies books might say that African Americans came here from Africa. That suggests that maybe they were on a cruise ship or they im-migrated," he says, "whereas the language today says they were captured, incarcerated and brought over to be slaves."

Houghton Mifflin's Ray Shepard, editor-in-chief of the school division, says, "As an African-American male and as a parent of African-American children, I think we far exceed in this area."

The company's latest sixth-grade textbook, now in production, will include more stories about black inventors and the black soldiers who fought with the cavalries against American Indians.

At Macmillan/McGraw Hill, new fare in fifth-grade books due this spring will include stories about blacks who fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War and information on communities of free blacks before the end of slavery.

Individuals featured will include Elijah McCoy, inventor of the train-engine Graphite Lubricator; Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a prosperous black fur trader who founded a trading outpost that became the first permanent settlement in what is now Chicago; and the Rev. Richard Allen, founder of the 200-year-old African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Robin Wiltison has been teaching U.S. history in Prince George's County schools for 17 years. She currently teaches eighth grade at Beltsville's Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, where she heads the social-studies department.

She agrees with Ms.

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