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'It's Uplifting All of Us': Oakland High School Students Experience Lessons in Black History Beyond the Classroom

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Two high school students stand next to each other inside the West Oakland Mural Project, while reading text on a wall that outlines the Black Panther Party's platform and 10-point program.
On their field trip, students Olamide Ajike (left) and Zach Lee read the Black Panther Party's platform and 10-point program at a museum dedicated to the Party at the West Oakland Mural Project. (Sara Hossaini/KQED)

Lois the Pie Queen, considered one of the oldest Black-owned restaurants in Northern California, recently served up a history lesson to Oakland high school students alongside its menu of soul food favorites.

“Buildings have been torn down. New buildings been built. But in terms of here, it's always been the same. Everybody wants to find Lois the Pie Queen and see what it's all about,” said restaurant owner Corey Jackson.

Lois the Pie Queen restaurant in Oakland on March 22, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Lois the Pie Queen’s decades-long staying power in the community made it the ideal first stop during a high school field trip tour of historic Black sites in Oakland.

On Monday, Tony Green, a teacher at Bishop O’Dowd High School, led the field trip for a group of juniors and seniors enrolled in his Advanced Placement African American Studies class.

A close up of a diner counter with hot sauce bottles, glass sugar containers, salt and pepper shakers, packets of jelly and plastic bottles of ketchup neatly arranged. In the background, a large collage of individually framed photos decorate the wall leaving no room between each frame. In the center, coffee pots warm on the coffee station.
Photos fill the wall behind the lunch counter at Lois the Pie Queen restaurant in Oakland on March 22, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Throughout the year, Green said he’s taught his students about the wealth gap, redlining and gentrification.

“It's meaningful because it's an attempt at telling the actual truth about African Americans and their relationship with the rest of the world,” said Green, who’s been teaching a version of the class for 32 years.

Teacher Tony Green speaks to his African American studies class at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland on March 22, 2023, following a field trip to historic Black sites in Oakland. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Christian Colbert, a junior, said Green’s teaching style — which aims not only to explain historical facts, but to also show how they’re interconnected across time — resonated with him.

“I just feel like a lot of history classes are just like bits and pieces of history,” he said. “Classes like these, kind of give you the whole thing, from like, ancient in Mali, to like, all the way to the Black Panthers.”

Students sit at desks inside a classroom. A projector displays a presentation. Three high school boys stand at the podium in front of the classroom ready to speak.
Christian Colbert (right), a junior, speaks about urban development and redlining during a presentation in Tony Green's African American studies class at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland on March 22, 2023, following a field trip to historic Black sites in Oakland. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Bishop O’Dowd, a Catholic school, is among 60 schools in the U.S. currently piloting the College Board AP African American Studies curriculum (PDF) — which covers early African societies, the slave trade and the history of resistance and resilience in the U.S.

Recently, the curriculum became part of a national political debate around teaching history in schools. The focus on topics such as Black feminism, among others, is one of the reasons why Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis initially refused to offer the course in schools in that state.

California has also had its share of discussions around social studies requirements. Starting with the class of 2030, a new law mandates all high school students in the Golden State complete a semester of ethnic studies — in part to help students of color see themselves reflected.

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“History is mainly white history,” said Catherine Gholamipour, a student in Green’s class. “You don't get a ton of exposure to stuff like this in other classes.”

Her peer Nartan Farucht, a senior, echoed the importance of a class that fills in the gaps of other social studies classes.

A sign hangs outside of a brick building reads "Marcus Books."
A sign for Marcus Book Store hangs above the business in Oakland on March 22, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“You can’t actually talk about the way we built our government, where we built our cities, we built our schools, without talking about the slave trade and the people who actually built these locations on their backs,” Farucht said.

Green and his students all live in Oakland, a city lush with history and the birthplace of the revolutionary Black Panther Party. During the field trip, the class made additional stops at Marcus Books, the oldest Black-owned bookstore in the country, and the West Oakland Mural Project, whose blue facade recognizes the women of the Black Panther Party and houses the only museum in the U.S. dedicated to the organization’s legacy.

Jilchristina Vest, the museum’s founder and curator, explained to Green’s class how the party was instrumental in community service efforts, offering free breakfast programs, health care and food co-ops.

“It's uplifting all of us, and if I'm not allowed to learn my history as an American, then why do we have schools at all,” she said.

Tobias Aisien, a junior at Bishop O’Dowd, said the museum visit helped him make connections to the history he’s been studying.

Tobias Aisien, a Bishop O'Dowd High School junior, listens to speakers during Tony Green's African American studies class in Oakland on March 22, 2023, following a field trip to historic Black sites in Oakland. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“Women's involvement in the Black Panthers, you don't really learn about that in the history books. So it's just really cool to see,” Aisien said.

Oakland’s contributions to Black history are highlighted in the AP course’s national curriculum, which includes a unit about the origins and contributions of the Black Panther Party.

Inside a bookstore, a wall is covered in colorful imagery and black and white posters of historic figures such as James Baldwin, Paul Robeson, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
Black history posters line a wall at Marcus Book Store in Oakland on March 22, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Green said AP African American Studies is expected to expand to hundreds of schools nationwide next year.

“We are a very diverse country and everybody here has made contributions,” he said. “So that's what history is supposed to be, right? It gives us, the citizens of society, a sense of who they are and what their values should be.”

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