Freedom Schools try to teach the truth about race in America

Students at the Peacemaker Freedom School in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

In a converted factory that once made plastic interior door panels for the auto industry, a vice president from the local community college stood on a painted plywood stage, flanked by a plexiglass drum-cage and large TV screens positioned for Pentecostal worship. Speaking to a hundred kids, almost all African American, he read from the children’s storybook Knock, Knock, about a once-doting father who suddenly disappeared from his son’s life.

“Do you know what happened to the dad in the book?” asked one child from the rows of sturdy plastic chairs.

“He went to jail?” asked 9-year-old Keonte Allen, who later said he doesn’t see two of his friends anymore, since their father got arrested.

Then their questions turned toward the biography of the college administrator standing in front of them.

“Was your father always there for you when you were growing up?” wondered another child.

“Did your mama raise you?” asked a fourth.

There at the Peacemakers Freedom School in South Rocky Mount, North Carolina, four hundred years of American racism simmered beneath the questions these elementary-school kids asked. From slavery to penal farms to Jim Crow to police brutality and mass incarceration to the racialized legacy of generational poverty and redlining that gave this city a literal “wrong side of the tracks” to begin with.

The kids don’t understand the history, not fully. What six-year-old could metabolize it? But its present is never far from their minds. And, yet, Peacemakers, one of almost 180 Freedom Schools created by the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) from Miami to Seattle, is no place for self-pity, but its opposite. From CDF’s 25-year-old program, to a smaller network developed since 2001 by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), to independent programs across the South renewing a civil rights era tradition, Freedom Schools empower. This was the vision of Septima Clark, the “Queen Mother” of the civil rights movement, as far back as the 1950s, when she was teaching citizenship skills at the Highlander Folk School and paving the way for the Freedom Summer of 1964: Knowledge is power, even and especially when societal systems discriminate. Educate kids, and they will fight for their freedom.

One Thursday morning this summer, as on every Freedom School morning, the kids sang along to a recording of “(Something Inside) So Strong.” They swayed, clapping and dancing in the aisles. Along with Quincy Jones’s arrangement of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” this apartheid protest ballad by Labi Siffre serves as a hopeful, pep-rally anthem at CDF Freedom Schools, which can run as long as eight weeks each summer.

Bouncing up to Siffre’s final chorus, the bass and snare drums emphasized a four-count, and so did 15-year-old Artoriel King. Moving in rhythm at the back of the industrial-chic cafetorium, he and Peacemakers site coordinator Nate Reisinger converged on an empty plastic chair and slammed out the beat with their hands, trying to hype up one of the younger kids sitting alone in the back row. “Though you're doing me wrong, so wrong//You thought that my pride was gone, oh no, oh no,” this young congregation sang.

King offered a visual metaphor for his moment as drum major.

“It makes it pop out,” he said. “If everybody went 3D, it’d be better.”

“At first, I wasn’t really into it,” added King, who’s now in his third year at the CDF camp, “but now it’s so fun.”

“[King] was trying to lead his friend into the Freedom School way,” explained Reisinger. “It’s really about empowering scholars to say what they want to say.”

The song is a mainstay of CDF’s “Harambee,” a morning gathering named for the Swahili word meaning, “all pull together.” CDF spends a week every summer training Freedom School teachers in key curriculum like Harambee at its 157-acre Haley Farm outside Knoxville, Tennessee, about an hour west of what is now called the Highlander Research and Education Center. Whether they’re recognizing good behavior or introducing a guest reader, the young schoolteachers and college interns who lead Peacemakers punctuate every moment with rhythms and lyrics they and eventually the kids have memorized.

“Are you hype? Are you hype? Are you hype? Are you hype?” shouted Shauna Jones, a theater and college-prep teacher at a local high school.

“Yeah, I’m hype! Yeah, I’m hype! Yeah, I’m hype! Yeah, I’m hype!” scores of children and teens shouted back, accenting the words with foot-stomping and hand-claps. Other “servant-leader interns,” as the staff are called, then celebrated the kids for their love of reading, their experimenting in afternoon STEM classes or “getting sweaty during Harambee.”

“I became a more positive person, just being around these scholars,” said intern Abbie Clifton, 20. “Feeding off everyone else’s energy, it makes you a more positive person.”

“It teaches them to come out of their shell,” said Jamilla McKnight, whose preteen son and daughter have been attending Peacemakers for the past two years. “You can hear a pin drop in here when it’s time to read.”

At their core, CDF Freedom Schools are literacy camps.

“A lot of the kids that we get are behind in school,” said Peacemakers executive director Jesse Lewis, a White member of Church on the Rise, the suburban Pentecostal congregation that started Peacemakers Family Center in 2006 as an urban outreach ministry. The Center offers not only the Freedom School, but also a food pantry, thrift shop, GED classes, job-training, and tutoring. “If a kid gets to middle school at grade level, then they’re probably going to graduate.”

Lewis said the average child’s reading proficiency goes up by nearly a full grade-level in just one summer. Other CDF studies have found reading skills increase by a partial grade-level in the first year but kids can leap ahead by multiple grade-levels over the course of two or three years at a Freedom School.

Every morning after Harambee, there’s a 15-minute bloc called “DEAR Time” – Drop Everything And Read. The kids pick their own books from the CDF libraries, which tend to focus on stories of overcoming injustice, especially Civil Rights history. The curriculum also calls for the guest readers during Harambee and for servant-leader interns to read particular books with their classes at each grade level, so they can discuss the freedom stories together.

“We feel it’s really important to instill a strong sense of identity in the kids. It gives you a lot of self-confidence,” said Lewis.

Lewis said visits to local colleges like East Carolina University help “scholars” – not students, not campers – imagine new possibilities for their lives. Nationwide, fewer than 70 percent of Black students graduate from high school, versus 86 percent of Whites.

“They meet people that go to school there that look like them,” he says. “A lot of them don’t see themselves going to college, and it helps put it in front of them.”

“The real goal is to be able to send them back to school with a degree of confidence,” says the Rev. Justin Hildebrandt, whose Connexion United Methodist Church hosts its own CDF Freedom School in Somerville, Mass.

“We can see a real difference in the students who participate here in the summer. They become true leaders here in the schools,” said Rev. Roderick Tillery, a Black Baptist pastor in nearby Elm City and principal at Rocky Mount Middle School. Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools have even allowed students to attend Peacemakers instead of summer school.

The original Freedom Schools developed as alternatives to public education offerings that had remained underfunded and segregated or had shut-down altogether after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Septima Clark, in fact, ended up at Highlander Folk School after losing her job as a schoolteacher in Charleston, S.C, because she refused to renounce her membership in the NAACP. Throughout the 1950s and early 60s, there had been a few Freedom Schools scattered along the East Coast in response to racist school systems, but today’s Freedom Schools find their roots especially in the Freedom Summer of 1964, when the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Clark’s Southern Christian Leadership Council all collaborated to open more than 40 Freedom Schools in African American neighborhoods across Mississippi. Those schools did teach basic academic skills like reading, but their focus was on training citizens, from small children to the elderly, to become active participants in society through voting and activism.

“The whole theme of Freedom School is, ‘I can make a difference,’” said Lewis. “They don’t have to accept the narrative that they’ve been told over and over. There’s a whole world out there that they can make a difference in.”

At Orita’s Cross, a Freedom School started by the American Friends in Baltimore, every morning begins around a shrine covered by pictures of African American “heroes and sheroes.” Hosted by Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, the altar displays a Black Jesus at the center. But orita is a Yoruba word meaning “crossroads,” and the icons celebrate “ancestors” across traditions, from the Black Muslim Malcolm X to the Black Panther Eddie Conway to the poet Maya Angelou.

“We try to connect them with names and stories that we’re quite confident that they will not be exposed to in their regular public schools curricula,” said founder Heber Brown, the church’s pastor. “Our focus is on developing the lenses in young people to process the complexities of their world and to see how their gifts and their genius can be applied to the perplexing problems of their communities.”

Orita’s Cross also teaches hands-on skills – how to grow vegetables, brew herbal remedies, mend clothing and change motor oil.

“We want our young people to not only have knowledge in their heads and love in their heart but also skills in their hands,” said Rev. Brown. “Their souls are fed in such a way that helps them to stand taller in this world.”

Orita’s Cross Freedom School is hosting a camp this summer after a few years of spring-break and after-school programming. They’ve had students attend justice rallies and city-council meetings and even address candidates at a mayoral forum held at the church.

“We’ve seen the beginnings of their voices speaking to social and political issues,” said Brown.

While CDF schools might prioritize literacy, social advocacy is not far behind. Every year, Freedom Schools invite scholars into a National Day of Social Action for things like healthcare access or voter registration. Last summer, it was gun violence.

“Our kids are used to hearing gunshots all the time,” said Lewis. “There’s a frustration level in them.”

Last summer at Peacemakers, then-14-year-old Nyah Hudson heard a local sheriff’s deputy talk about gang life – the violent initiations, the turf wars, how hard it is to get out once you’re in. After the officer’s visit, Hudson and her fellow scholars knocked on doors in South Rocky Mount, encouraging kids to stay away from guns and out of gangs.

Hudson’s mother Sabrina McCall said taking action on social issues helps the scholars learn to love their neighbors.

“It lets them know that everyone’s equal,” she said. “We’re all God’s children, and we all should look out for one another. We’ve never lived in the neighborhood where there was violence, but (Nyah) sympathizes with different teens that she comes across that are in that situation.”

Back at Rocky Mount High that fall, Hudson began to talk to the guys she knew were making friends – or enemies – in the local gangs. A few months later, 15-year-old Lavantae Brown, a close friend of Hudson’s close friend, was shot to death at 1pm on a Friday after cutting out of school early. Two other teens were charged with his murder. Media reports said the shooting was gang-related, and Hudson believed that was true.

“We tried to get him to stop, but we just couldn’t help him,” Hudson said. “It was too late. Everybody wore white on Monday because he had passed.”

Rocky Mount is a city that straddles a county line, demarcated by the CSX Transportation railroad running through the middle of town. South of the railroad tracks is Edgecombe County, 57 percent Black and with a 27 percent poverty rate. North of the tracks, which includes downtown, is Nash County, 54 percent White, with an 18 percent poverty rate.

Michele Lynch, a White mother who lives in the neighborhood and whose Black son attends Peacemakers, said gangs in South Rocky Mount recruit even elementary school kids, and the Freedom School not only keeps them off the street but gives them something constructive to do. Her 10-year-old Kenneth was learning to build robots and raise chickens through Peacemakers’ afternoon Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) program, “something to really pique your child’s interest,” she said.

The STEM training included field trips like learning physics at a roller-skating rink or birdwatching in a nature preserve.

“This is a lot more than a summer camp,” agreed McKnight. “They learn various ways of respect, knowledge, time-management, and life skills.”

Peacemakers, like other Freedom Schools, is not merely empowerment for kids who happen to be poor and Black. It’s also a learning opportunity for a dozen or so White kids and staff members who participate, much like the Highlander Folk School, SNCC, and other programs helped prepare White volunteers for what became the Freedom Summer.

“It’s critical to educate not only our students of color but all of our students on our history,” said Hildebrandt, who leads a CDF Freedom School outside Boston.

Lewis said having White scholars and staff reading Black history alongside minority students can lead to some uncomfortable but important moments.

“This is just part of history that we’ve got to acknowledge,” Lewis said. “Hopefully, that leads to fruitful conversations about where we are today. What kind of injustices are still here today, and how can we make it better?

“These are people that normally wouldn’t get to know each other,” said Lewis. “You have to understand somebody else’s life experience. That’s where we think progress happens.

“I think people underestimate how difficult it is for kids who are coming out poverty to be successful in school,” he said. “When you say there’s inequity in the education system, the average upper class White is not really going to understand what you’re talking about.”

Clifton, one of Peacemakers’ servant-leader interns, grew up in nearby Nashville and, like Lewis, attends the predominately White, suburban Church on the Rise.

“I grew up in a very fortunate home, and some of these scholars didn’t have that privilege,” she said. “You don’t realize that until you’re in this environment. I didn’t realize that in South Rocky Mount there was as much poverty and as much need as there is.

“I am a White individual. My entire class is African American, but they don’t see me as being different than them, and I don’t see them as being different than me,” she said. “We relate on a different level than the color of our skin. Even though we come from a different area, we still put on our pants one leg at a time.”

Though she’s Black, 20-year-old Brittney Ward said she’d never spent much time around other African Americans outside her own family until working as a servant-leader intern at Peacemakers Freedom School. She went to a private Christian school with almost all White kids and, like Clifton, never had much exposure to social ills like poverty or crime.

“Many of the scholars don’t get the loving environment they deserve,” she said. “All we do is facilitate discussion, and they roll with it. They teach me about myself. It’s building confidence to change the community in a positive direction.”

Nyah Hudson found some of that confidence during not only last year’s “Protect Children, Not Guns” campaign but also 2014’s “Get Out the Vote for Me” campaign. Canvassing South Rocky Mount, Hudson met an elderly woman who had never voted.

“I was really surprised. Because of how old she was, I thought she would have been registered already,” Hudson said. “It made me think, ‘This is one of the ways I can have a voice for what I want for my country.’ Everyone should be able to vote for themselves because they have a voice.”

Like they did 50 years ago, Freedom Schools are helping kids to find their voices, and, maybe, with some time, those voices will help us solve our vexing problems of institutional racism.

“To me, everyone’s equal,” Hudson said. “We’re working our way up. We’re getting better. We just need more work.”

Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham, N.C. He is author of the spiritual memoir This Littler Light. His reporting has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and other publications.