Monday, August 4, 2003

An Ohio school district has scrapped its plan to assign a certified white teacher for a combined black-history and U.S.-government course because a black instructor was not certified to teach government, The Washington Times has learned.

“The black teacher is going to teach the course, and he will also teach government under an alternative certificate which our district can secure for him,” Oberlin School Superintendent Beverly Reep told The Times.

“He is continuing to teach this course because he has taught [black history] for seven years, developed the curriculum, and is willing to get an alternative certification to make the schedule work for our students.”

Black community activists and black faculty members at Oberlin College criticized school administrators and the city school board when they learned budget problems had forced the 352-student high school to combine black history and U.S. government courses, and cut one of three social-studies teachers from the faculty.

It was reported that Kurt Russell, Oberlin High’s black-history teacher, would be reassigned because he lacked the required teaching certificate for U.S. government.

But Mrs. Reep now says there was never a decision to replace Mr. Russell with a white teacher for the new combined black-history and U.S.-government course.

“In the past, the African-American history course was taught by a black teacher and the government course was taught by a white teacher,” Mrs. Reep said in an interview.

“Someone — I wish I knew who — saw this schedule and made the assumption that this pairing meant that the black teacher was not going to teach the African-American course. That decision was never made by our administration.”

However, local furor over reports that a white teacher would teach black history at the high school was widely covered last week by Cleveland-area newspapers, radio and television.

A.G. Miller, an associate professor of American and African religious history at Oberlin College, told Cleveland’s Plain Dealer that placing a white teacher in the black-history course would send the wrong message to black high school students.

“The message is that we are not concerned about the importance of your historical background … that that is less important than a schedule conflict,” Mr. Miller told the newspaper.

Mrs. Reep and Mr. Russell “declined to discuss the issue,” the Plain Dealer reported Saturday. Mrs. Reep “told parents at a school-board meeting that scheduling issues would be addressed next week,” the newspaper reported.

It also quoted School Board President Tony Marshall, who is black, saying he believed a “black teacher brings an experience and understanding of being black that no one else can bring.”

Saturday, Mrs. Reep broke her silence in an interview with the Morning Journal, a county newspaper serving Oberlin.

“This wasn’t a story; it was a rumor,” the paper’s Sunday edition quoted her saying. “The old teacher was never reassigned. … No matter what you say, people believe what they want to believe.”

But denials weren’t made several days earlier when angry blacks spoke at a school board meeting.

Phyllis Yarber Hogan, a member of the Oberlin Black Alliance for Progress, told the board it was “better to cancel [the black history course] if it is going to be taught by a white,” a board member said.

“When you talk about slavery, students need to understand it is not our fault,” Mrs. Hogan said, according to the Plain Dealer. “Our ancestors did nothing wrong to be enslaved. How do you work through that when the person teaching it is the same type of person who did the enslaving?”

Mrs. Hogan did not respond to inquiries by The Times. Her comments brought heated criticism, with several participants on a local Internet discussion board labeling them “despicable” and “racist.”

“To say it’s insensitive to blacks because of the oppression they endured under the white man’s hand, let’s not forget it was the black man’s own tribal people who greatly helped contribute to slavery,” wrote one contributor to the local NewsNet5 Internet board. “History is about facts, not emotions.”

The discussion board asked area residents, “Should white instructors be allowed to teach black history?”

“What a silly question,” wrote John Krogstad. “Should black instructors be allowed to teach white history?”

Wrote Charles C. Harmon: “It is absurd to reject a white teacher teaching black history. History is history, unless you want to ‘interpet’ or ‘rewrite’ it to a particular political agenda. Is this what the black parents want?”

Richard Vermeulen said a black instructor would be more capable: “It is where the better-qualified would be a black person. They put more soul into it! … The point is that a white person can teach black history, but is not as apt to do the best job at it compared to a black person.”

Said another discussion-board participant, “I’m a black English teacher, so I guess I was way out of line teaching Shakespeare.”

Another of 110 contributors on the topic asked, “So now it is OK to have only white teachers teach European history too? Only Germans can teach their native language? Who will teach Latin?”

J.R. Davis wrote, “A white teacher can teach black history just as effectively as a black teacher can teach Colonial history. After all, should only Jews teach of the Holocaust?”

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