Superintendent's Notebook: Black history is a continuing legacy

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February is Black History Month, a time when we reflect on and celebrate how the contributions of African-Americans have helped make our country great.

Most people are familiar with leaders like Frederick Douglass, the renowned anti-slavery writer and orator, and the great Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But I’d also like to recognize contributions to black history made here in Maine.

First, a little background about Black History Month: It was first celebrated nearly 40 years ago, but the NAACP says its origins reach back to an NAACP leader, historian and educator, Carter Woodson, who founded “Negro History Week” in 1926. At that time, most history books ignored the central role African-Americans played in shaping America into the country it is today. In 1976, Negro History Week expanded into Black History Month, according to the NAACP.

How do Maine and Portland fit in?

Well, to cite just one example, Portland was one of the first cities in the country to spend public money educating African-Americans. A few African-American children attended classes with whites at North School in the early 1800s. As the population grew, a separate “colored” school was created in a room at the rear of the building. Later, the “colored” school moved to the Abyssinian Church, the city’s only African-American church. The minister, the Rev. Amos Freeman, was both teacher and principal. Today, of course, Portland’s schools are fully integrated.

In a more modern example, Gerald Talbot in 1972 became the first African-American member of the Maine House of Representatives, representing part of Portland. Talbot also helped reorganize the NAACP in Maine, an organization today led by his daughter, Rachel Talbot Ross.

Gerald Talbot is the co-author of an anthology called “Maine’s Visible Black History,” which shows how African-American men and women have shaped Maine culture and society since Colonial times.

The anthology covers everything from slavery in Maine, which lasted until 1783, to the role Mainers played in the modern Civil Rights movement.

Today, a half a century later, King Middle School students are studying about those Mainers. In a learning expedition called “Small Acts of Courage,” the students are learning about the Civil Rights movement through the stories of Portland residents who fought for racial equality in the 1960s.

And Casco Bay High School student Kim Henry, responding to the current national debate on race and the stereotypical way African-Americans often are portrayed in the media, held a “Black Stories Matter Cafe Night” on Feb. 12 to enable black students to tell their stories.

Those are just two examples of a wide variety of efforts at the Portland Public Schools – Maine’s largest and most diverse school district – to promote tolerance, fight against discrimination and ensure that ALL our students graduate prepared for college and career.

We have a number of school-based groups that work to address issues of bias and reduce barriers in our community and schools. These groups include the King Fellows, Seeds of Peace, Voices for Student Centered Learning and school civil rights teams.

Also, the Portland Public Schools, Mayor Michael Brennan and the NAACP are partners in My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative of President Obama and the White House that is tackling the challenges faced by boys and young men of color. We held a Local Action Summit in January and hope to roll out an action plan this spring.

Parents are involved, too, through Portland Empowered, a parents’ group working to get traditionally disenfranchised populations of parents engaged with the school system to foster student success. They have support from the Muskie School and the Nellie Mae Pathways to Success project.

At the staff level, we also are working to enhance professional development to include cultural competency and an understanding of diversity and inclusion. Our goal is to be a leader on issues of race and equity.

And during the fiscal year 2016 school budget process, we’ll be looking at ways to close the achievement gap we see in some grades between groups such as African-American and economically disadvantaged students and their other classmates.

Closing both the achievement and opportunity gap for our students is a moral imperative and moral challenge facing our community.

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Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk writes this column monthly. He can be reached at superintendent@portlandschools.org. Read his blog at blogs.portlandschools.org/superintendent/.

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