It was the summer of 1964 in the Mississippi Delta. Although it had been more than a century since the Civil War, it had only been 10 years since the Supreme Court ruled, unanimously, that "separate but equal" public facilities were unconstitutional. Exploited black laborers were still growing the area's main crop, cotton, and the divide between the races distended dangerously in the sticky Delta heat. That summer, The Freedom Summer voter registration campaign — comprised of black Mississippians and mostly out-of-state white volunteers — established approximately 50 Freedom Schools in Mississippi.
Separate from the public school system, which was run by white legislators, school boards, and administrators who mainted a segregated system of education, the Freedom Schools enrolled African-American elementary, middle, and high school students to instill in them the power of learning and civic activism. Despite the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the fight for equality in the public school system raged on.
Today, College of Charleston professor and author Jon Hale is continuing this decades-old charge for equality here on the peninsula. Held in classrooms in Charleston Progressive Academy, Charleston's first Freedom School opened its doors on Mon. June 19.
Hale, an assistant professor of educational history and civil rights, was familiar with the Children's Defense Fund's Freedom Schools, a summer and after-school initiative started in 1995 under the leadership of Marian Wright Edelman. The CDF's program, which is based in cities across more than 30 states, focuses on providing "reading enrichment" for children who otherwise may not have access to books, helping these students bridge the learning gap that often takes place over the summer.
There are two CDF Freedom Schools in North Charleston, one through Metanoia Youth Leadership Academy and one through the Carolina Youth Development Center, together serving approximately 150 children. But except for one program at Burke in 2007, which was not sustained, there was no opportunity that existed for peninsula residents to take part in the free six-week, literacy-heavy summer program until this year.
Hale says when Edelman visited CofC the year after the Mother Emanuel shooting to talk about reconciliation and healing, she also challenged the city to start a Freedom School. Hale heard her challenge loud and clear. "I was inspired by the history," says Hale, whose 2016 comprehensive book on the subject The Freedom Schools: Student Activists in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, delves into the lives of those first Mississippi Freedom School students.
"The Freedom School [in Charleston] fills a very real need," says Hale. "Historically, students attending a failing school often receive hand-me-down textbooks. Just providing them with new textbooks is a powerful message we're investing in these kids."
Working with representatives from the Coastal Community Foundation, the Library Foundation of the Lowcountry, The Citadel, the College of Charleston, the Center for Women, Charleston County Public Library, Grace Church Cathedral, Mayor John Tecklenburg, and the Housing Authority of the City of Charleston, Hale and his board, in a little over a year, raised the money — approximately $69,000 to fund one summer Freedom School program for 50 students — for the peninsula's first Freedom School through personal and corporate donations and several grants.
Board member Veronica Vereen, assistant dean for development for the Zucker Family School of Education, says, "I was so excited that the idea was to bring one [Freedom School] to the peninsula. When guest speaker Senator [Marlon] Kimpson came to read, he asked the students 'Where are you all from?' and they were raising their hands and most were from Sanders Clyde, or Memminger, or Charleston Progressive. It made me feel good that not only did we have this opportunity to open this up to 50 students in this area, there were 25 on the waiting list."
Hale writes in his book that "A history of the Freedom Schools reveals that young people still in middle and high school were on the front lines of the civil rights movement, and in many instances it was the young people — not rebellious college students or established National Association for the Advancement of Colored People card-carrying members — who inspired local movements in their own community."
Hale believes that by drawing from the original Freedom School's mission, we can instill these important civic and educational values in underserved area children today.
Each morning, the kids, lead by the program's five student leaders, participate in Harambee, an activity that is held across the board in CDF Freedom Schools.
"I took the understanding of Harambee to mean that students should see not only people that look like them, but a variety of different people and professions," says Vereen about the different guest speakers who visit the school every day. "So they can see themselves being president one day, mayor one day, being an artist."
Vereen says that the advisory board's goal is to establish three to five more Freedom Schools on the peninsula.
"We all knew there was a need," she says. "I'm hoping this six weeks of literacy education will help them as they move forward into the world. The students seem to be so engaged and excited."
Vereen adds, "As someone who is in education, I get to see how we're training teachers but I didn't get to experience being in the school system. To see how excited the kids are, they just had breakfast, they're shouting Harambee. This is what I needed, this is what the community needs."