Lori Higgins, Detroit Free Press 9:06 p.m. EDT June 25, 2013
The emergency manager appointed to oversee the Highland Park School District’s finances denied Tuesday that a large collection of black history books, tapes, film strips and other materials were deliberately discarded into Dumpsters last week from the district’s high school library.
Emergency manager Donald Weatherspoon, said workers on the second floor of the library mistakenly threw them out. He said the district was able to recover them in time.
It’s unclear, though, how much was really recovered. Residents said they found about 1,000 pieces of material on their own Thursday evening.
The recovered materials will be sorted and those that have historical value, Weatherspoon said, would go to a library or a museum that would agree to keep them. He said none of the materials would be sold.
But his declaration — during a heated meeting Tuesday night — that the materials would no longer remain with the district drew anger from many in the audience.
Some were also angered that the discarded materials included tax and bank records containing personal information. Highland Park Board Vice President Debra Humphrey held up some of the records, demanding an explanation from Weatherspoon.
“I can’t let you sit here and say this was a mistake,” Humphrey said.
Weatherspoon said the district can’t afford to secure the collection. The Leona Group, the charter management company that began operating schools in the district a year ago, was offered the books. Weatherspoon said they took what they wanted.
Rodney Patrick, a city councilman, urged Weatherspoon to consider other options “before the Hefty bags come out.”
“This speaks to a larger issue — a disinvestment in urban areas,” Patrick said after the meeting.
Patrick said the district could consider doing what the city did when its library closed several years ago. He said artifacts from that library are being stored voluntarily by a company in the city.
Outrage had been growing in the community over reports that the books — some of them first-edition pieces and some out of print — had been thrown out.
“In diversity, range and depth, that library rivaled most community college libraries,” said Highland Park resident Paul Lee, a historian who helped build the collection.
It’s unclear how large the collection is, though Lee, who runs a research and consulting service that specializes in the recovery, preservation and promotion of global black history and culture, estimated it represented about 40% of the library.
It was Earl Wheeler, former City Council president and a former city employee, who notified Lee — in a phone call Thursday evening — that materials from the library were sitting in a Dumpster. Lee and several friends, armed with flashlights, dove into the Dumpsters and pulled out what he said is just a fraction of the collection.
Wheeler, an African-American storyteller and lecturer on Africa, visits Highland Park schools frequently —particularly during Black History Month. During last year’s visit to the high school, he checked out the collection.
Lee said the district began building its black history collection after the civil rights movement, a result of a demand by activists for black history studies to be integrated into the school curriculum.
In the 1990s, the district appointed him to a committee, part of a broader effort to expand its black history curriculum.
“The purpose of black studies is to build self-esteem, self-confidence, to engender a sense of self-worth. The fundamental idea is that if black children learn to respect themselves, they’ll respect others,” Lee said.