Teachers embrace honest history

Valentine’s Day, a celebration of love, falls in the middle of Black History Month. This year I got to spend part of it with fourth-graders at Boulevard Elementary, talking about the civil rights movement in Cleveland Heights.

There couldn’t have been a better day to talk about the courage, values and tenacity of citizens who, in the 1960s, challenged the hate-induced housing practices that made our community one of the all-white communities in a countywide and nationwide sea of segregation. Residents transformed our community into an integrated stronghold of activism, demonstrating that, when people work together, they can confront overwhelming odds and make a difference.

The invitation to speak came after Julie Walker heard my civil rights history presentation at a session of FutureHeights’ leadership-development program. Walker and Laura Preston, both of whom grew up in Cleveland Heights in the 1990s, teach the two fourth-grade classes at Boulevard. Thanks to student activism in the 1970s—part of my history lesson—the Heights High curriculum included Black history, and the district celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day by the time these women attended.

As part of their Black history curriculum, the teachers focused on two important questions: Why was the civil rights movement needed, and how can citizens make change? The Cleveland Heights civil rights history story that I documented in Resisting Segregation was a perfect fit with their topic and is something a fourth-grader can understand. The high point for me came when a 10-year-old girl, her mind not inured to the folly of such an idea, asked the fundamental question: Why segregation? 

My visit was fun. The kids were completely engaged. It was especially gratifying to be able to make the civil rights story hyper-local. Martin Luther King Jr. came to St. Paul’s in Cleveland Heights in 1963, because Cleveland, home to many people with Alabama roots, was a good place to raise funds for his work in Birmingham. Local activists made it possible for Black residents whose housing options were confined to Cleveland to move to Cleveland Heights. I asked kids to raise their hands if they had roots in Alabama and then again in Cleveland. The hands shot up. This is their history.

Many local leaders who opened the doors for integration and lobbied to make our community more inclusive sent their kids to Boulevard. Bernice Lott, the first African-American member of the CH-UH Board of Education, honed her leadership skills and demonstrated her concern for education as president of the Boulevard PTA.

In 2021, Ohio was one of eight states where lawmakers introduced legislation to censor discussion of race in school by prohibiting the teaching of “divisive concepts.” This ultra-vague idea was designed to intrude on teacher autonomy, promote distrust, deny history and create the aura that history is dangerous and a topic to avoid.

Even though the ban is not yet codified in Ohio, it has caused teachers and school districts to self-censor. These culture-war ideas contradict the fundamentals of public education: the equal value of all children, critical thinking, preparation for citizenship, and the truth.

I am so proud of our teachers. History doesn’t scare them and neither does our fearmongering legislature. We need to celebrate our public schools and endorse and trust the autonomy of the people who make classrooms lively places for learning. Our teachers are not afraid of the truth, and we shouldn’t be either. Our job is to stand by them and to challenge state policies that take us backward.

Honest education is high-quality education. It is education for democracy. Thanks to our teachers, honesty is alive and well in Cleveland Heights.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser moved to Cleveland Heights in 1979. She is the former director of Reaching Heights and is active with the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters. A community booster, she is the author of a book about local activism, Resisting Segregation.

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Volume 17, Issue 4, Posted 11:11 AM, 03.28.2024