Schools in Northern Virginia could barely keep up ten years ago with the demand for black history courses.

Today, Alexandria alone offers black history -- 12 students are enrolled, and many black leaders hail that development as progress.

Many black educators say the sharp decline in the study of black history is evidence that minorities -- once virtually ignored in American history textbooks -- have taken their rightful place in the classroom.

"That's true," agrees Alta Newman, director of affirmative action for Fairfax County schools. "The fact that black history courses are losing popularity is, to some extent, a reflection of the 'pluralistic' approach we're trying to take in Fairfax County."

"Pluralism" is the title Fairfax administrators have given their human relations program. Its ultimate aim is to ensure that classes reflect the diversity of American culture.

History books are being rewritten, educators say, and students are finally getting a balanced look at America's past.

History books are being rewritten, educators say, and students are finally getting a balanced look at America's past.

Northern Virginia students are learning about the contributions of blacks, women and American Indians. In history and social studies books, entire chapters are devoted to historical figures who went unnoticed in traditional textbooks: James Beckwourth, a black explorer; Harriet Tubman, one of the founders of the underground railroad; Susie King Taylor, a black nurse during the Civil War; Hiram Revels, America's first black senator; Mary McLeod Bethune, a black educator; Ida Wells-Barnett, a black journalist; and even Nat Love, alias Deadwood Dick, a black outlaw.

"Publishers have made a point of presenting a more balanced view," says W. Frank Taylor Jr. social studies curriculum specialist for Fairfax County schools.

Taylor oversees the selection of social studies textbooks that takes place every six years. Last spring, books were chosen for the early 1980s and Taylor calls the quality of the new materials "remarkable."

School administrators point out that the black consciousness that swept the country during the 1960s and the 1970s had an unexpected bonus -- the heightened awareness of other minorities and women. As a result, textbooks show a dramatic increase in the amount of space allotted to women as well American Indians, Puerto Ricans and other ethnic groups.

Many textbooks also are taking a critical look at areas formerly glossed over in other texts -- from government policies toward American Indians to the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II.

In a seventh-grade social studies textbook, "Freedom's Trail," the publisher has devoted an entire chapter to the infamous "Trail of Tears" -- the forced march of thousands of Cherokee from Georgia to Oklahoma. The chapter includes reminiscences of survivors who relate poignant tales of misery and death.

One high-school histroy text has a page entitled "American heroes." On that page are photographs of three women, two black men, two white men and one American Indian.

"The history books 15 years ago hardly mentioned blacks except as slaves," recalls Robert A. Hanley, principal of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria.

"We've seen a very decided decline each year in the number of students asking for black history courses," Hanley says. "What has happened is the American history courses are taking a completley different tact. Today the blacks feel more comfortable that black history is being taught in general history courses."

Seymour Stiss, an Arlington County school administrator, says textbook publishers "have made progress -- not great strides, but progress" in including minorities in American history. But Stiss says publishers occasionally fall into a trap of overcompensating for their past omissions by giving a great deal of space to obscure historical figures.

"It's like having a black studies or a women's studies course. In that class you might deal with hundreds of figures throughout history," Stiss says. c"But in the general textbooks you don't have the same amount of space, and if you're not careful, you can get into some real obscure stuff."

To give a broader view than most general texts can provide, Stiss says, the school system encourages its library to carry "books dealing with more specialized studies."

High-school principals point out that while black history courses have all but disappeared, students are still joining black history clubs where they discuss black concerns, both historical and current.

Admitting that course popularity is cyclical, school administrators say that if the interest in black history reemerges, so will the classes.

"If enough students asked for it (black studies), sure we'd bring it back," says Stiss.