What were the “Freedom Schools”?

Written by Jawuan Walters


Imagine getting up out of bed before sunrise. Imagine walking up to five miles to and from school everyday, even though there is a school that is closer to your home. Imagine attending a school that was falling apart. In a one-roomed building, with up to thirty people, there were no textbooks, no desks, no pens or pencils.

This is the type of environment black students in the South had to deal with. After the Civil War, white politicians put in place specific laws and rules that made it illegal for white and black students to attend the same school. More times than not, white schools were better funded, had better resources and therefore the students did better academically. Black students in black schools were not given the same monetary resources and thus did not do as well.

After years of this, a group of people decided to come up with a program that would teach the black students things they were not learning in their traditional or every day school. The organization that came up with this idea was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,usually called SNCC. These new schools were called “Freedom Schools.” These new alternative places of learning were meant to provide young black students in the South with an education that would provide intellectual stimulation, and linked learning to participation in the movement to transform the South’s segregated society. 1

At this time in the South, black people were disenfranchised, meaning they were not allowed to vote. So another objective of the Freedom Schools was to teach young black students how to get involved in their communities to bring about change that would give them political power. The only thing that would give them the power was the right to vote.

In order to teach this type of material, SNCC depended on volunteers. White volunteers. The use of white volunteers gave “valuable labor and brought favorable publicity” to Freedom Schools.2 People in the North would not be interested, unless there were white volunteers involved. Since the volunteers were not from the South, they did not completely understand the political structure that was in place. The volunteers had to go through intensive training in order to teach the material to young students. Freedom School teachers received a week’s orientation at the Western College for Women in Ohio before heading to Mississippi. During orientation, volunteers were taught tactics on how to teach the material to the students.

In some locations, it was a real challenge for students to travel to “Freedom Schools” because some people did not like the idea of white teachers teaching black students and if given the opportunity, inflict harm on them. Hence, the teachers had to come up with interesting and engaging lesson plans that would entice the students’ interest. Although volunteers were offered some information about the areas where they would be teaching and some instruction in different teaching methods, the orientation was dominated by the effort to prepare volunteers for a Mississippi reality that they could not imagine. A reality in which students or SNCC members could be injured or killed. A significant amount of people in these Southern towns, did not like the idea of black students learning about the political structures of the country. Consequently, teachers had to be prepared to protect themselves and their students.  As a result, SNCC simulated race beatings, just in case an incident would occur.  

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Before the volunteers came down to the South, SNCC members came up with a curriculum or a lesson plan to teach to the young black students for the six weeks. The curriculum contained three important parts:

The first one was the “academic curriculum.” Teachers in the classroom, would “sharpen the students’ abilities to read, write, and work mathematical problems.”3 In many cases teachers decided to go a step further and teach material created by black authors, poets and artists. Sandra Adickes, a volunteer teacher taught her class from books that were authored from black authors. In their normal schools, students were not given new books, much less books by black authors. According to Adickes, the students were thrilled to have new books to read. She wrote, “I was as thrilled as the students to be placing in their hands crackling stiff, never-before owned books, which were, indeed, as good as gold to them.”4 As mentioned before, black students did not have new or proper books at their usual schools. Black students, like any other students were excited about learning. They enjoyed attending school. Unfortunately, in their usual school, new books were not given to them. The students had to use old and used books.  Having and using old books conveys that the school is not as important as other schools. With new books, it stimulates thinking and encourages the students to read more. This shows if students are given the proper resources, they can excel and do well in school. Mentally,  it showcases to the students that they had the potential to achieve purposeful and symbolic work.

The second component of the Freedom School was Recreational and Cultural. SNCC members and volunteers understood how important the arts are to a child’s development. Thus, they made sure the students in the Freedom Schools had plenty of time for free time and excursions.5 Frequently,the young students would dance the popular dances of the day or sing the freedom songs that protesters sung while they marched.  Along with this, SNCC provided support to schools for students to freely express themselves in their art.

The third and perhaps the most important of the curriculum was “Citizenship.” For SNCC members and volunteers, the most important the thing the students could have learned about  in the freedom school was the political system that was stripping them of their rights. Teachers were told to “concentrate on the social institutions which affects the students, and the background of the social systems which has produced us all at this time.”6 The objective of this was to inform the students of the institutions that were in place and to give them the skills to go about changing those same institutions. By doing this, SNCC meant to leave a long lasting activist body in the community. Hopefully, they could create “little activists.”

According to Bob Moses, an instrumental person in the formation of Freedom Schools, “this was more than mere offer to participate in statecraft; it was, in a larger sense, the process of extending hope to an almost hopeless segment of the national community.”7  The Citizen Curriculum was meant to facilitate thinking amongst students about why things are the way they are and then think about solutions for correcting the ills in society. The best way to do that was to register people to vote. A central idea that SNCC members believed was that if citizens had the power to vote, they could change the political systems and the institutions around them. They could elect people who shared the same political views as members of the community, and go to the state or the federal government to advocate for them. Essentially, if African-Americans can vote, they can change their outlook and control their own destiny.

Ultimately, the Freedom Schools were not just a place for learning, but a place to learn new skills and techniques to help create a society that is equal and fair to all it citizens, not just white ones. The promotion of self-discovery gave students the necessary aspects of their lives and an outlook through which to enact their own political insights.  

1Perlstein, Daniel. “Teaching Freedom: SNCC and the Creation of the Mississippi Freedom Schools.” History of Education Quarterly 30, no. 3 (1990): 297. doi:10.2307/368691.

2 “Freedom Summer campaign for African American voting rights in Mississippi, 1964,” Global Nonviolent Action Database, , accessed April 25, 2017, http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/freedom-summer-campaign-african-american-voting-rights-mississippi-1964.

3 Lynch.”Overview of the Freedom Schools .” Summer Project Documents (Freedom Summer) 1964-1965. http://www.crmvet.org/docs/64_cofo_freedom_schools2.pdf.

4 Adickes,Sandra. Legacy of a Freedom School. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

5 Lynch.”Overview of the Freedom Schools.”

6 Lynch.”Overview of the Freedom Schools.”

7 Perlstein, Daniel. “Teaching Freedom: SNCC and the Creation of the Mississippi Freedom Schools.

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