Davey D (right) moderates a discussion between Steve Wasserman (center) and Blake Simons for the BHS African American studies department anniversary. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Fifty years ago, Berkeley High students went on a successful strike to demand the creation of the first African-American studies department at a high school.

Half a century later, it remains the only such department in existence, according to Berkeley Unified.

Last week, during a multi-day 50th-anniversary extravaganza, the teenagers currently enrolled in the Afro-Haitian dance and African-American English courses got to learn about the legacy of their department.

At daily assemblies, students heard from a person who started the department, took in live musical performances, and watched the documentary Welcome to the Neighborhood, about gentrification and changing demographics in Berkeley. Most of the speakers were Berkeley High alumni, said Spencer Pritchard, a department teacher who helped organize the program. A final Friday event, where panelists were slated to discuss a “plan of action,” was postponed when all schools in the district were closed due to poor air quality.

The week of events kicked off with a panel discussion Nov. 13, where speakers were asked to talk about why an African-American studies department is still important.

“When we have these spaces, it allows us to really recognize our full potential,” said journalist and hip-hop expert Davey D, who moderated the afternoon talk in Berkeley High’s Little Theater. “Not just for ourselves, but everybody who’s been fed lies about us.”

Steve Wasserman, publisher at Heyday, reminisced about creating the department with his late friend Ronnie Stevenson. Stevenson was a young member of the Black Panther Party and the founding chair of the Berkeley High Black Student Union, and he remained a local community leader until his death in 2010.

“I argued, how could you consider yourself an educated student if you only knew the speeches of Abraham Lincoln and you didn’t know the writings of Frederick Douglass?” Wasserman said. “To our astonishment the school board agreed to our demand.”

Afro-Haitian dance is a mainstay of Berkeley High’s African American Studies Department, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Photo: Mark Coplan

In their fall 1968 protest, the students also successfully got the district to hire more black teachers to work in the department, then called Black Studies. Richard Navies oversaw the operation for years. It is now headed by Naomi Washington-Diouf. To this day, the program offers courses as varied as African-American journalism, black psychology and Swahili.

“The humanities-based courses take students on a journey through Africa’s glorious past, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the African-American dynamics as an integral part of the development of our nation through history, literature, language, dance, drama and spoken word,” read a recent Berkeley High course catalog.

In 1969, Wasserman, who is white, was able to enroll in the first African-American history course ever offered, and, together with his peers, began publishing an underground newspaper, Pack Rat, which Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale let the students typeset at the party’s headquarters. (Seale was slated to participate in the Nov. 13 panel himself, but wasn’t able to make it.)

“How could you consider yourself an educated student if you only knew the speeches of Abraham Lincoln and you didn’t know the writings of Frederick Douglass?”
— Steve Wasserman

Blake Simons, of UC Berkeley’s African American Student Development Center, told today’s students to keep taking the classes offered at Berkeley High.

“In a lot of ways, our education institutions aren’t sites of actually learning about your people, but it’s being indoctrinated,” Simons said. “You can’t move forward without knowing the proper history today.”

Students should then use their knowledge to go off and work for radical change, he told them.

While Wasserman spoke of “the social virtue, indeed necessity, of solidarity and brotherhood,” Simons said, “I don’t know if white supremacy really allows community to be built.”

While the events that spanned all last week were geared toward students, a broader, year-long anniversary celebration involves community members too. A committee of parents and teachers, as well as School Board member Karen Hemphill, planned the programs, said department teacher Alan Miller. On Oct. 20, alumni and members of the public gathered for the debut event, an afternoon of music, food and kick-ball in the Berkeley High courtyard.

Next up is a Kwanzaa dinner on Dec. 15, honoring Navies, who will get a permanent memorial on the campus.

It has been a season of anniversaries for BUSD. This fall also marks the 50th anniversary of the voluntary integration of Berkeley elementary schools which, together with the start of the African-American studies department, constituted an unprecedented approach to educational equity in 1968.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...