When Philadelphia first mandated a year of African American history, teacher Amy Jane Cohen faced "a steep learning curve."
When the Philadelphia School Reform Commission passed a resolution in 2005 mandating that a year of African American history be a requirement for high school graduation, teacher Amy Jane Cohen said she knew “a tiny bit about the local Black experience.”
What she knew was a product of teaching an elective about Philadelphia history. But despite that limited background, Cohen, of Mt. Airy, volunteered to teach the course, embarking on what she described as a “steep learning curve.”
What followed was more than just the students’ education on an important school subject.
“My understanding of local and American history was profoundly changed,” Cohen said. “I continued to deepen my knowledge of local Black history as director of education for History Making Productions, a documentary film company that focuses on Philadelphia history. I also became a monthly contributor to the online magazine Hidden City, and many of my articles relate to local Black history.”
Cohen’s latest project is a book about the subject she has fervently studied and taught since the 2005 mandate. “Black History in the Philadelphia Landscape: Deep Roots, Continuing Legacy,” was released Feb. 2 by Temple University Press. Cohen will discuss the book Saturday Feb. 10, at 3 p.m., at the High Point Café, 602 Carpenter Lane, and also at booked, 8511 Germantown Ave., at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 15.
“As an inveterate teacher, my goal has always been to share the remarkable stories I have learned,” Cohen said. “The motivation for the book was to put much of this learning into one place and through a consistent lens, that of the visible landscape.”
Matthew J. Countryman, associate professor of African American and African Studies and History at the University of Michigan and author of “Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia, called Cohen’s book “essential reading for all who value honest and unapologetic assessments of the nation’s past.”
Cohen, a graduate of Brown University with the highest honors who earned master's degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Maryland, has taught a variety of subjects, including African American History, for many years at the Masterman School, Temple University and Drexel University. She is quite candid about her history in area classrooms.
“I did teach at Temple, but it was not a positive experience,” she said. “As much as I enjoyed my 20 years as a classroom teacher, including 13 years at Masterman, I am not the cliché of 'those who can’t teach, teach how to teach.' Teaching at the college level, to me, had all the downsides of middle and high school teaching — hours of preparation and grading — with little of the upside — relationships with students, parents and colleagues...
“The hardest decision I ever made was to leave my teaching job at Masterman. I had amazing students, terrific colleagues and loved the subject matter that I taught: World Geography and African American History. The demands of the job, though, became too much for my mental health and the well-being of my family. I remain in awe of the teachers who continue to do this important but draining work, year after year.”
In addition to her academic accomplishments, Cohen is a founding board chair of Friends of Sueños, a nonprofit that supports an educational program in Antigua, Guatemala, for the children of street vendors, and a board member of Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion, a Victorian house museum in Germantown.
After leaving the School District of Philadelphia at the end of the 2013 school year, Cohen began working as Director of Education at History Making Productions, the award-winning documentary film company created by West Mt. Airy resident San Katz. One of her projects was to initiate the production of “Cecil’s People,” a Mid-Atlantic Emmy Award-winning film about the young people who participated in Cecil B. Moore’s civil rights actions in the 1960s, most notably the fight to desegregate Girard College. Cohen's new book is dedicated to those demonstrators.
Four years after the 2015 release of Cecil’s People,” Cohen and her family coped with the effects of the COVID pandemic which ultimately brought the family closer together.
“Both of our daughters were set to graduate in 2020,” she said last week, “our older daughter from Barnard College in New York and our younger daughter from Abington Friends School. Despite the initial disappointment, there were a lot of wonderful things about having both girls unexpectedly at home. My sister-in-law and brother-in-law also live in West Mt. Airy with two daughters. We spent about six nights a week having dinner at one house or the other, playing lots of games, walking in the Wissahickon and sealing an already tight family bond.”
In addition to her passion for African American history in Philadelphia, Cohen is a cheerleader for her neighborhood. “West Mt. Airy was a fantastic place to raise our two daughters, now ages 22 and 26,” she said. “I love that every time I enter Weavers Way Co-op or either of the High Point Cafes, I always know at least one person, usually a neighbor or former student or parent from my years as a middle and high school teacher at Masterman.
“It is such a privilege to live in a place where doing one’s grocery shopping is a time to connect with community members! Although I grew up in Center City and am a Center City kid at heart, I have come to appreciate the greenery and dramatic changes to the landscape that accompany each change of season.”
For information on other book talks and presentations by Cohen, visit amyjanecohen.com. Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com