No peace for powerless people: The activism that shaped the African American Studies Department

“Student activism. I think that is something really beautiful, and is what shaped this department.” said Dawn Williams, or “Doc Dub,” a teacher at Berkeley High School.


“Student activism. I think that is something really beautiful, and is what shaped this department.” said Dawn Williams, or “Doc Dub,” a teacher at Berkeley High School. “Our department was introduced in 1968, and it was all thanks to our beautiful Black Student Union.” Williams teaches Afro-Haitian Dance, and is the co-head of the Department of African American Studies at BHS, along with Spencer Pritchard. 

In 1968, the BHS BSU demanded the development of a culturally relevant department. In a series of strikes not only led by the BSU, but also parents of Black students at BHS, the AfAm Studies department was founded, originally called the Black Studies Department. The success of the African American Department at BHS established the baseline for deeper Black education in schools all around America. 

When extended education of Black subjects was introduced, it was common for the average student to not know historical figures such as Fredrick Douglass, said Indiana University Bloomington PhD student Aaron Fountain, who specializes in the radicalization of high school students in the 1960s and 70s. “The gateway for Black Studies departments everywhere began to open with the help of Berkeley High students,” Fountain said.

The curriculum associate of the AfAm Studies Department, the late Clarence Hampton, spent months perfecting the curriculum before release. Hampton stressed the importance of hiring Black teachers, as they “establish rapport with Black students,” adding that “white teachers can help tremendously by integrating the materials of their courses and by seeing that they are well taught.” There was an extensive list of new courses provided, like Afro-American Literature, Afro-American Economics, and African Civilization. The two classes already offered (History of Jazz and Afro-American History) remained, and continued to excite their students. 

The demand for culturally relevant Physical Education led to the African Diaspora (previously known as Afro-Haitian) Dance course, which was the beginning of Williams’ position. 

However, despite the determination of the Black Studies teachers, administrators, and department heads, many of the other classes offered in the AfAm department were cut due to a federal case discouraging the segregation in classes at BHS. Featured in a 1977 interview, by the Berkeley Daily Gazette, Navies spoke on the injustice of restricting the “only comprehensive African-American student program in existence in a public school in America.” Throughout the article, Navies criticized the loss of these spaces, saying, “we may have lost more than we gained.” 

As is the  longstanding disagreement of the difference between community and segregation within BHS. While the federal government made a point to put money in place in order to desegregate, this was not always the answer that the Black community was looking for. Annually, BHS would apply for and receive a $400,000 grant from the Emergency School Aid Act. This money was used to fund the AfAm Studies Department, but was quickly denied. BHS was targeted, with the government insisting that “no student shall be allowed to attend any ‘racially identifiable’ class for more than 25 percent of the school day.” 

These requirements cut the attendance of AfAm Studies Department courses in half, with 125 students prevented from taking its classes. Quickly, the effect of money and attendance shortages caught up with the department, resulting in the end of many of the original courses offered. The fact that the majority of classes of BHS were predominantly white was not kept in mind, which struck a nerve with Navies. However, even as the guidelines were deemed unfair by Navies, he did not believe the grant was of the utmost importance. “I believe that $400,000 is not enough money to justify taking … heritage and positive sense of pride away from Black students,” he said. 

Navies’ wish for his department was fulfilled, with many original Black Studies classes being brought back, and new classes added to the key department, resulting in a thriving community present today. The AfAm Department currently offers courses such as African Diaspora (Beginning and Advanced) Dance, African American History, and AP Patterns in Black Literature. The mission statement of the current AfAm Department at BHS highlights the importance of educating, empowering, and appreciating Black students at BHS. The statement partially reads, “To educate students and the greater community with an awareness and appreciation for the accomplishments, contributions, history, and culture of people of African descent.”

Recent news proves that the effect from the BHS students, parents, coordinators, and teachers that helped organize the department is far from over. As of September 2 2022, 60 American schools are now offering a new course, AP African American Studies. It covers four hundred years of contributions from Africans and their descendants to the US, according to Time Magazine. Although this course is a pilot program, and students taking the exam will not receive scores or college credit, the creation can be linked back to the beginning courses included in the BHS AfAm Department. 

The extensive history of the AfAm Studies Department continues to impress the nation, and pursues the emergence and progression of more and more courses surrounding Black education. 

As Navies said, “We Black people must define ourselves and establish Black standards. By looking at our past we can give direction to our present and future.”