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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Representative Yusuf Hakeem answers a question as members of the Hamilton County legislative delegation spoke to the Times Free Press at the newspaper's offices on Nov. 15, 2019.

NASHVILLE — A two-year effort by state Rep. Yusuf Hakeem to have Black history taught in Tennessee public schools as a stand-alone subject paid off Thursday as the House approved legislation on an 80-2 vote.

The measure, House Bill 2106, directs that Black history be part of the social studies curriculum in grades 5-8.

It now goes to the state Senate where Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Raumesh Akbari of Memphis is the sponsor.

Last year, the bill died, initially upsetting the normally laid-back Hakeem who is one of two Black legislators in all of East Tennessee. But the lawmaker redoubled his efforts to address some of the concerns GOP majority lawmakers had raised and worked with them, putting the process for approving curriculum under the State Board of Education.

"I was fortunate enough to consult with and receive insight from my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to present you with a bill that most representatives will hopefully find acceptable," he told the chamber on Thursday when presenting the bill on the floor. "The intentions of this legislation is to be narrow, focused and specific. These are crucial times and transitional years for students, so it is crucial that they learn about and explore Black history at an age where they can digest the information."

The bill will focus on Blacks whose success has stood the test of time, he said.

"We're not talking about popular culture or those types of individuals," Hakeem said.

The list of African Americans about whom students would learn include the Tuskegee Airmen from Alabama, a a group of primarily African American military fighter and bomber pilots and airmen who fought in Europe during World War II.

Others include Lt. Col. Luke J. Weathers, whom Hakeem said attended high school and college in Tennessee and became the first African American air traffic controller. Others include Sampson W. Keeble of Nashville who became the first Black elected to serve in the Tennessee legislature following the Civil War.

"Very frankly, well, he was indeed a Republican," Hakeem observed dryly to colleagues in the GOP-dominated legislature.

Another would be Judge Bernice Donald, Tennessee's first Black female judge and the nation's first Black woman to be a U.S. Bankruptcy judge, Hakeem said. Donald later became a U.S. District judge for the Western District of Tennessee and now serves on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Last year, the bill ran into a brick wall in the House Education Instruction Subcommittee as Republicans raised multiple concerns. It was supposed to be shipped off to a summer study along with other bills but was omitted from the summer agenda.

Hakeem told the Times Free Press in an interview after Thursday's vote that he worked with Republicans to come up with a bill they liked enough to vote for.

During a brief discussion on the bill, Rep. Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville, asked Hakeem whether topics involving Black historical figures are not already being taught in public schools.

"And if so, why do we need this legislation?" Farmer asked. "I know my daughter has learned a lot about Black history. She comes home and tells me about all kinds of things she's learned, so I know she at least has been taught that."

Hakeem said it's taught in various grades but in a haphazard fashion across the state.

"What we're trying to do is standardize this so that there'll be consistency," Hakeem said. "To answer your question specifically, the concept that is in the code now is that it 'may' be taught, and we're trying to move it forward to where it will be taught."

Hakeem noted there is no additional cost in this year's budget because the bill would take time to implement and would enter classrooms in the 2025-26 school year.

Farmer wound up voting for the bill, as did House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, House Majority Leader Williams Lamberth, R-Portland, and Hamilton County lawmakers.

In a statement to the Times Free Press, Senate sponsor Akbari said she is hopeful about the bill in the Senate.

"Members on the Education Committee had an excellent discussion about our American values and shared history," the statement said. "I'm optimistic my colleagues will all find worth in clarifying which grade levels engage more prominently with Black history."

Following the vote earlier in the day, Hakeem said by phone he was elated over the bill's passage in the House.

"I think it says something about our legislature that they look, I guess, at the manner in which I put forth the bill," he said. "I sought and received input from both sides of the aisle on this bill. And with God's help, the grace of God, they saw fit to move this bill forward."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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