by Jordan Levy
As the School District of Philadelphia revamps its African American history curriculum, educators are crafting a new unit dedicated to a critical chapter in the city’s recent past: the story of MOVE.
The new teaching unit on the Black liberation group and its relationship to the city will be included in the general Black history course, with expanded coverage in a supplemental course that focuses on Black Philadelphia.
“We want to tell the whole story … because even what the MOVE movement was talking about, sometimes that’s lost in the sauce when we talk about the MOVE bombing,” Ismael Jimenez, the district’s social studies curriculum director, told Billy Penn.
In keeping with the new curriculum’s focus on primary sources — as opposed to textbooks — the unit is being created with the help of Mike Africa Jr., an activist and member of the MOVE family who has worked to maintain the documents associated with and created by the group.
It will be further developed via community feedback sessions this spring, said Jimenez, who taught African American history for 12 years before assuming his current role last fall.
Jimenez and the team of local teachers and education professors brought aboard to develop fresh coursework — the first new iteration since African American history was made a Philadelphia graduation requirement in 2005 — are aiming to have the general course, which they call the “national curriculum,” completed by the end of this month.
Once the second course on local history is developed, instructors will be able to use it to augment the general course.
“Teachers will be able to have much more to pull from, so they might pull certain aspects of the Black Philadelphia Story to make more salient points,” Jimenez said.
A third course set to be developed next year will “focus more on anti-colonial struggles in Africa [and the Caribbean] and Latin American development in relation to Africans.”
For the coming weeks, however, the curriculum team’s focus will be on the group that famously uses Africa as a surname.
A tangle of pride, defiance, brutality, and neglect
MOVE was born in 1972 of the writings and teachings of John Africa.
His radical anticapitalist critique of modernity framed around racial oppression, ecological degradation, and animal rights attracted other Philadelphians, and MOVE formed a group that initially lived communally in Powelton Village.
The family was met with a mix of community support and opposition, but resolutely and militantly refused to let city health officials inspect their living quarters.
It was deemed a “terrorist group” by then-Mayor Frank Rizzo, who in 1978 pushed them out in a clash with authorities that led to arrests, convictions, and prison sentences up to 100 years, spawning the group’s ongoing work with prisoner defense campaigns.
MOVE eventually reconvened in the Osage Avenue rowhome that in 1985 was infamously bombed by the city. The attack killed six adults and five children, and destroyed 61 houses, an entire city block.
In 2021 it was revealed that some of the bombing victims’ remains were being kept at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The news spurred protest and led to the discovery of additional remains in the city’s Medical Examiner’s Office, prompting the resignation of the health commissioner, and eventual burial of some of the bones.
The same year, several ex-MOVE members came forward with accounts of years of abuse and homophobia during their time in the group.
Jimenez and his curriculum team will try to fit that multifaceted narrative into coursework that aligns with the themes grounding the new curriculum: the eight Principles of Black Historical Consciousness crafted by the University of Buffalo’s LaGarrett King.
A potential teaching certificate in ‘Black history’
King’s eight principles are as important for students as they are for instructors, Jimenez believes.
He’s been in talks with other education institutions about creating a Black history teaching certificate. For teachers in the Philly School District, the subject now comes with some required training.
“I’ve been able to have required professional development for people who teach African American history — this will be the second year we’re doing that,” Jimenez said.
The coursework being developed may have a local reach beyond Philly public schools.
Jimenez has been in talks with educators at Mastery Charter Schools, KIPP, and Boys Latin about engaging with the curriculum being formed and using the teaching materials to come.
The district’s professional development Africana lectures have drawn attendance from as far away as Kentucky, Minneapolis and Buffalo, as educators try to navigate a bracing time for the field, filled with moral panics about critical race theory, backlash to the New York Times’ 1619 Project, and Florida’s ban of a new AP African American History course.
Jimenez joined protests last week at the Union League over the club’s decision to honor the Florida governor who pushed for the AP history ban.
The political headwinds facing African American history education serve to inspire him.
“Seeing what’s happening around the country,” Jimenez said, “puts that sense of urgency to be the standard bearer of what Black history education in the K-12 space looks like.”