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Brookline removes textbook over passage about slavery

A fifth-grade textbook criticized for downplaying the ills of slavery in America has been removed from Brookline public school classrooms, Superintendent Bill Lupini said in a recent interview.

At issue was a chapter in the 2003 edition of “Harcourt Horizons: United States History” that contained the passage: “Slaves were treated well or cruelly, depending on their owners. Some planters took pride in being fair and kind to their slaves.”

Brookline lawyer and activist Brooks Ames, who spoke out against the textbook at a School Committee meeting on Nov. 13, said he first saw the passages when his daughter brought the textbook home from the Heath School toward the end of last year. He said he complained to his daughter’s teacher and later — along with about a half-dozen other parents and activists — contacted Lupini’s office.


“What bothers me about this book is the way we’re teaching about racism,” Ames said, according to a videotape of the Nov. 13 meeting. “Slavery was a racist system. It was a cruel system. It was an evil system. And when you start talking about good slave owners and bad slave owners and happy slaves and slaves that weren’t so happy you’re completely missing the point. And the fact that this textbook was in our schools for 10 years is a system failure.”

After first hearing complaints about the book last December, Lupini said, he and his staff instructed schools to prohibit use of the controversial passages, but allowed teachers to continue using the rest of the book. For a time, they also considered allowing the passages to be used in critical thinking lessons, he said.

When complaints were renewed this month, district officials agreed that the risk of students reading the passages of their own volition was too great, and the book would finally be removed altogether, Lupini said.


Within days after the meeting, the history book was gone from classrooms, the superintendent said.

“Materials are still being provided to teachers from other parts of the book, for now,” Lupini said.

Ames said he is satisfied with the book being removed from Brookline’s schools, but wishes it hadn’t taken nearly a year for it to happen.

Jennifer Berlin, spokeswoman for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the textbook’s publisher, pointed out that Brookline was using the 2003 edition of the book, and that newer editions do not contain the controversial passages.

“We appreciate the concerns expressed by parents about the language in the edition of ‘US History’ used by the Brookline public schools. That language was changed in later editions to reflect more strongly the overall suffering slaves experienced,” Berlin said in an interview.

Tyrone Howard, who coedited the textbook in the early 2000s, said he was surprised the passage had caused a controversy, and he wished the Brookline school district had allowed him to weigh in before removing either the passages or the book from classrooms.

Howard, who is African-American and is an English professor in the University of California Los Angeles Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and director of its Black Male Institute, said the passages may not be politically correct but they painted a more accurate, complete picture of slavery.

“I’ve said that a number of scholars have written about the complexities of slavery,” Howard said. “It was a cruel, horrible institution. But there were conflicted slave owners, whose slaves were treated differently than others’. ”


James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@ globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.