Residents of Highland Park, MI, are still enraged that a selection of books and other materials from a Highland Park Renaissance High School collection devoted to global black history was thrown away recently. The revelation that many hundreds of titles had been found in a dumpster outside the school has already spurred one community protest, accusations of neglect and mismanagement, and the resignation of an appointed school board member.
Paul Lee, a Highland Park scholar and former student at the high school, says he got the initial call about books being thrown away at 9 pm on June 20, and drove over to the school with a flashlight to investigate. “I had three friends with me and we spent two hours recovering as many books as we could,” Lee tells School Library Journal. “There were shattered monitors, glass everywhere, metal desks, broken pieces of wood. We crawled amongst all that.”
According to Lee—who was in the school as the collection was being built in the 1970s, when there was a push to include more black studies in schools—it included African American, African, and African Caribbean works. In later years, he helped build the AV portion of the collection, recommending VHS tapes, educational audio cassettes, and some slides, he says.
Although Lee says he found fewer than 1,000 books in the dumpster, he believes there were nearly 10,000 books in the school’s collection, including such titles as Mike Rowe’s Chicago Breakdown (Da Capo Press, 1973) and Bell Irvin Wiley’s The Life of Billy Yank (1952).
However, Donald Weatherspoon, the emergency manager for the Highland Park’s school district, says that by October of 2012, when he was appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, there were only about 2,500 books at the school—not 10,000. The school librarian had been laid off in 2009, he says, and so the “place had been lying fallow for all those years.” He doesn’t dispute that there may have once been 10,000 titles, but without a prior catalog, he has no way to verify that information.
Weatherspoon—who was appointed to bring financial solvency to the district, which is in receivership—admits that a cleaning crew was in the school the night Lee found the books in the dumpster, but insists the books in question were discarded in error. Titles had been inventoried, boxed, and then set aside, he says. “What happened is that the cleaning crew went into a room and removed everything when they should not have removed materials that had been identified,” he says. “It was a mistake.”
Now, Weatherspoon says, he is working to get records, yearbooks, and any other books that have some meaning and value to the school district to be set aside.
“There was never a plan to throw anything out that was of historical value,” he says.
But that doesn’t quell Marcia Cotton’s concerns. Cotton is a board member from the Highland Park Renaissance Academy Board of Directors, a board which represents the Leona Group, a charter school company which runs the district’s schools.
Cotton says she didn’t know about the books being removed until Lee and others came to protest at a recent board meeting. Her co-board member, Andre Davis, resigned soon after, frustrated.
Cotton has stayed on. But as a graduate herself of Highland Park High School (the school’s original name), and her daughter also a graduate, Cotton says would have liked to see some of the books herself —if she’d known they’d existed. “Where were they being stored?” Cotton asks. “Were they on shelves? In boxes? Were they forgotten about? Were they even being used to educate the children?”
Weatherspoon says he had informed the Leona Group’s superintendent that cleaning crews would be in the building. He also says a new library is set to be built in the high school for the fall, and he offered some books to the charter school group, which he says “to the best of my knowledge…took some.”
He also says he understands that emotions run high around the books, but believes the concerns may be misplaced.
“Some of these books are so out of date they don’t have the significance that a lot of people are placing to them,” he says. “But that’s not for me to decide. We’re preserving what we have so hopefully we can give them back to the city and the city can decide to keep them in their own community.”
In the meantime, Lee says he is adamant that the books and audiovisual materials he found last month will not be handed back over to Weatherspoon or the district anytime soon.
“We’re not going to give them back to have them thrown out again,” he says.