ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — As kids head back to school, there’s at least one subject that’s being talked about more outside of the classroom by state and local leaders.
What You Need To Know
- There is a new curriculum for African American history in grades K-12, and critics say it’s harmful to students
- The education commissioner is standing by those changes, and people across the state are pushing back
- The Association of African American Life and History talked about an idea to launch a Freedom School back in 2014 and this summer in St. Pete, the school graduated its first class
- Organizers with the Association of African American Life and History said they’re working on a plan to offer Freedom Schools throughout the school year
The Board of Education released a new curriculum for African American history in grades K-12, and critics say it’s harmful to students, pointing out a section from the curriculum that says African Americans benefited from slavery.
The education commissioner is standing by those changes, and people across the state are pushing back, using a tool that dates back to before schools were integrated: Freedom Schools.
On the street in front of The Woodson Museum in St. Petersburg, the words “Black History Matters” are painted as a mural. That message and the history on the block alone is what made The Woodson the perfect place to launch a Freedom School.
Jacqueline Hubbard with the Association of African American Life and History’s St. Pete chapter said she gave the concept a lot of thought.
“I was really active in the student nonviolent coordinating committee when I was in college," Hubbard said. "And I remember I was part of the freedom summer. I remember the Freedom Schools. And I wrote an article for the Weekly Challenger saying, 'Don’t you think it’s time we revisit the Freedom Schools? Don’t our kids need to be taught their own history?' Who can better teach it then those of us who are of the same group.”
Hubbard also reacted to changes that were made to the new African American History teaching standards.
"The curriculum is an abomination," she said. It makes me very angry when I read what they want to teach children."
The Association of African American Life and History talked about an idea to launch a Freedom School back in 2014 and this summer in St. Pete, they graduated their first class. It’s something organizers say is perfect timing.
Abyssinia King, 16, is one of the students who attended the Freedom School this summer. She said the lessons being taught are hard to put a true value on.
“Kids are missing out on a lot, I would say. You can learn African American history in school. But by coming to Freedom School you just learn so much more,” she said.
Abyssinia is one of 23 kids enrolled at the school.
This is the Association of African American Life and History’s inaugural class for its Freedom School pilot program.
“My dad learned about Freedom Schools and when he explained it to me I was, like, 'It would be a really cool experience.' And since I’m taking African American history in the upcoming semester, that would be great to just get another background knowledge on Black history,” Abyssinia said.
The high school junior said this summer course felt more like an awakening.
“When I think about Black history, I’ve always thought of it as a negative thing because of what we’ve learned in schools all of these years," she said. "And so, by coming to Freedom Schools, we get to learn so much more about Black history and not just the bad parts."
This Freedom School isn’t just for Black children. Dean Rum, 13, registered with his older brother.
“I kind of like it because schools don’t usually teach this stuff, so it helps,” he said.
Rum is headed to the eighth grade with what he says is far more knowledge and understanding than his peers may have.
“I’m white. So, if you can learn about history of other people and not just American history that’s a good thing,” he said.
The concept of Freedom Schools dates back to 1964 during what’s referred to as Freedom Summer in Mississippi. The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), which is made up of four organizations including The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, The NAACP, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), wanted to bring attention to the racist terror happening in the state.
The groups focused on voting rights, Freedom Schools and adding diversity to delegates for the democratic national convention. According to the SNCC, that summer of 1964, the legislature in Mississippi tried to outlaw planned Freedom Schools and crosses were burned in 64 of the state’s 82 counties on a single night.
But the schools were created anyway.
It’s that kind of history that Abyssinia says helps shape the future as long as someone is there to teach it.
“One thing that I really took away from this class was just a sense that Black history is important for us to learn," she said. "And with everything that we’ve learned so far, it was great to see a time line and how things fell into place and how we’ve risen from those harsh times."
While chapters are still being written, for these students the freedom to learn African American History in rooms just like the one at The Woodson, are what freedom schools are all about, both then and now.
Organizers with the Association of African American Life and History said they’re working on a plan to offer Freedom Schools throughout the school year. Hubbard said the group's Sarasota-Manatee County chapter launched its first Freedom School last spring.