Highland Park’s Black Studies Collection Trashed, Community Mobilizes

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What happens when one of the institutions created to educate and preserve the general population’s access to knowledge decides to trash an entire population’s archive? Massive protests.

A public school in Detroit is facing an enormous backlash after over 10,000 Native American and global black history volumes (books, videos, historic periodicals) were found in a dumpster behind the school by a parent. The school’s official response labels the event an accident but also notes that the collection is too expensive to keep.  The district’s emergency manager, Donald Weatherspoon, shifted the blame to contractors, whom he claims were hired to consolidate records. What’s unclear is why they would have had reason to touch the library when records are housed elsewhere, as well as an explanation for the school’s lack of an immediate response to the discovery in the dumpster or their lack of an effort to retrieve the items.

Highland Park’s black studies program began in 1974 with the goal of building student’s self-worth so that they would respect themselves and thus respect others. The library’s collection contained first edition and out of print books, audio visual equipment and materials, as well as historical periodicals. Paul Lee, the historian who helped assemble much of the collection, choked up during a radio interview while describing the scene he discovered in the dumpster: thousands of books buried under broken AV equipment. Of the more than 10,000 materials, less than 1,000 books and a dozen video cassettes were recovered. The sole copies of Highland Park’s city archives, dating back to the early 20th century, were discarded as well.

via CCAC North Library on Flickr
via CCAC North Library on Flickr

The school-wide clean-up by contractors was part of an attempt to lower the its debt: property, school buildings, two new school buses, kitchen equipment, driver’s education cars and other school supplies were liquidated. But when the historical items were listed on eBay in an attempt to make money, the school’s population was never notified or offered the opportunity to bid. Though the discarded items were valuable enough to donate to a library or museum, the starting bid on many was $0.01. While other Michigan schools have resorted to similar sales to reduce debt, Highland Park’s situation differs in that it intentionally denied a community access to its heritage. Had Weatherspoon reached out the community, he could have made money instead of throwing it away.

Marcia Cotton, a member of the Highland Park Renaissance Academy Board of Directors, deflected criticism, diverting attention instead to the declining school enrollment and city population. Her comment ignores the connection between a collection of materials that reflect the community and a thriving student population: books are a clear marker of importance, and shelving books that reflect students’ lives and experiences sends the message that they are worth writing about, reading about and preserving.

The community has mobilized to protect the loss of the collection and protest the school’s response. Last Monday, protesters brought traffic to a standstill for 15 minutes to distribute information to passerbys; they are asking for the salvaged materials to be donated to the community center and control of the school district to be returned to them. in response, the Public School Academy Board Vice President, Andre Davis, resigned. “I don’t want to be a part of the destruction of our future generation,” he said. “If we don’t educate our kids, then how can we get mad when they’re coming through our windows or holding us up at the gas station and what have you. I mean, if that’s all you have left, the first law of nature is self-preservation.”

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