Living history and legacies: Teaching Black history in Sacramento classrooms

Article The Sacramento Observerby SRISHTI PRABHA

It’s Black History Month and schools, like Sacramento Charter High School, are shaping their curriculum to include the rich Black history of Sacramento.

And Cassandra Jennings, the Chief Executive Officer of St. HOPE Charter Schools, reminds students at Sacramento Charter High School of exactly that. 

“The history goes even further than what you’re reading in the books. We got our own history right here,” she told the seniors in her advisory class.

Her curriculum for the month is centered on Black History and one of their assignments – a moment in time – had students choose a Black or Latin figure whose iconic image they would recreate through photography.

“History is conveyed through photographs and it’s important to have them so you can tell the real truth to combat racism,” explained Jennings.

On the list were names like Colin Kaepernick, a former 49ers quarterback and civil rights activist, Ida B. Wells, a journalist and civil rights activist, and Benjamin Banneker, a mathematician and astronomer. 

One student was quick to choose Huey P. Newton, the founder of the Black Panther Party. 

“There is a green Victorian house on 3rd Avenue up from Fixins – the name of that building is the Huey P. Newton building,” said Jennings, reminding the students that the Sacramento Black Panther Party was headquartered in Oak Park. She added that the building named after the movement’s leader was where Fred Hiestand, a lawyer for the Black Panther party, had his offices. 

She’s already made an impact on student Justice Spears, who chose Shirley Chisholm — the first Black woman in Congress — before the assignment was handed out. Spears aspires to be a congresswoman and she says Jennings’ lessons resonate with her.

“It feels like a necessity because how do I keep going in the future without knowing my past?” she asked. 

Her own community history includes Cassandra Jennings’s work in Oak Park. 

“It was really nice to see her and notice, ‘Oh my gosh. She’s a black woman who is a CEO and I am able to talk to her.’ She reminds me of my grandma and I’m learning from her, her history and experiencing life with her.”

Jennings has shaped the landscape of the Sacramento region since the 1980s. She’s worked on the Phoenix Parks Project, which aimed to revitalize South Sacramento, and on a separate housing redevelopment in Oak Park which would preserve cultural history.

 Sacramento Charter High transitioned from a district school to a public charter school, run by St. HOPE, in 2003. Jennings joined the school in 2021. Before this, the minority-majority student body at the school had low graduation rates. Jennings’ work has transformed the academic markers at the school — 85 percent of students now graduate and every single one of them meets the application requirements for UC and CSU schools. 

Between her work in housing and her efforts to improve education for Black students, she has been passionately committed to mitigating racial inequity.

“I feel blessed to be living my purpose here. In the segregated South, where I grew up, seeing all the struggles and all the sacrifices people made gave me a heart of service. We have come across great leaders in Sacramento. I want to do my part to make a difference, especially for the young people.”

The St. HOPE charter schools will be holding cooking, reading, and music sessions rooted in Black history for their students throughout the month.