Every public school in New York City will receive a free CD-ROM encyclopedia of black history, thanks to a successful investor who never forgot how he made it big.

When Alphonse Fletcher Jr. was a teen-ager, he spent many nights in front of a computer his parents had given him. He went on to Harvard, then Wall Street.

On Feb. 23, he announced his gift, valued at $80,000, at a news conference at New York State Board of Education headquarters in Brooklyn.

“My own experiences with computers, forming my educational development and also the role they’ve played in my business–all of that led me to be a very strong advocate for making computers accessible,” said Fletcher.

A multimillionaire before he turned 30, he now runs his own firm, Fletcher Asset Management Inc., and is one of the country’s most prominent black investors and philanthropists.

And he’s never forgotten the computer that opened his mind 20 years ago.

Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew said the CD-ROMs will get kids excited both about reading and about using computers. But he added that the subject matter–black history–is what’s really key.

“It isn’t just reading–it’s reading and knowing your own life, knowing your own ability to make a contribution to your cultural history,” Crew said.

New York City has the largest public school system in the nation, with more than 1 million students and 1,136 elementary, middle, and high schools. More than a third of the students are black.

The CD-ROM–Microsoft Corp.’s Encarta Africana–has 3,361 entries, including 2,200 photos, audio selections, and video segments.

Among the user-friendly film clips are Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech; Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in South Africa; a baseball play by Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series; Bill Robinson–Mr. Bojangles–tap-dancing on a staircase; Jesse Owens winning the 100-meter dash in the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany; Joe Louis’ 1938 knockout punch delivered to Max Schmeling; Louis Armstrong singing; and a mini-documentary about Africa’s earliest city, Kerma, in the Kingdom of Kush.

The encyclopedia was edited by two well-known Harvard professors of Afro-American history, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah.

“We’ve published an encyclopedia about the whole black world, starting with Lucy, our common human ancestor in Ethiopia, going through Egypt, all the way up to the birth of rap music and hip-hop culture,” Gates said.

Only 19 percent of black households have computers, said Gates, who likened the lack of computer literacy among blacks to a form of slavery.

“(Technology is) essential to learning in the 21st century,” said Gates. “We’re so far behind in terms of basic literacy, and now we’re getting behind in terms of information literacy.”

Encarta Africana retails for $69.95. A printed version is due to be published in November.

Lesson plans for helping teachers integrate the product into the classroom are available through Microsoft’s Encarta Schoolhouse web site.

Fletcher Asset Management Inc.

http://fam-inc.com

Microsoft Corp.

http://www.microsoft.com

Microsoft’s Encarta Schoolhouse

http://encarta.msn.com/schoolhouse