When it comes to education, I have a well-rounded and unique perspective. I received a Catholic school education, I taught middle and high school history for two charter schools and I am currently a program director for a public school district.
I know what it is like to attend school with zero Black teachers and I know what is like to be the only Black teacher in a school building. Fueling my use of culturally relevant and affirming resources to teach Black and Afro-Latinx students in a culturally responsive and affirming way was having little to none of that throughout my K-12 experience.
So when folks ask me where I stand on the debate pitting traditional public education against non-traditional public education (re: traditional vs. charter schools), all they need know is that I am on the side of Black children and the autonomy of Black parents/guardians to secure the education they find best for their children—whether it be in a public, charter, private, or homeschooling.
What I am against are school districts and/or school management organizations that harm Black children, or any child, and fail to adequately repair the harm.
In my experiences, I’ve seen examples of schools serving Black children well and others that have sorely missed the mark. It’s why I am a supporter of schools created and operated by Black educators. Are there incompetent Black educators, yes. But the research says that Black students who have had at least one Black teacher are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college and are less likely to drop out of school.
The research also shows that the majority of Black educators, and I would argue the vast majority according to my experiences, enter education out of a profound desire to educate and mentor Black children.
It is why I became an educator.
Can we say the same about non-Black educators? Black parents would argue that you cannot. According to 2017 poll, the majority of Black parents don’t believe that schools are trying the best educate Black children; whether or not schools do try depends on whether or not schools have mostly Black teachers. It is why more Black parents are homeschooling their children more than ever before. What makes a great school, in the minds of most Black parents, are great teachers and you can’t claim to want the best for Black children without Black teachers.
What does this all mean? It means that the Black Panthers were ahead of their time.
October was Black Panther Month. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP) was founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton on October 15, 1966. As part of their work, the BPP required that its chapters nationwide open free medical clinics and host voter registration drives. In 1969, the BPP began Liberation Schools, started as an after school program, in storefronts, churches, and homes out of a recognition of public schools failure to properly educate Black children.
Liberation Schools were born from point five of the BPP’s Ten Point Program:
WE WANT DECENT EDUCATION FOR OUR PEOPLE THAT EXPOSES THE TRUE NATURE OF THIS DECADENT AMERICAN SOCIETY. WE WANT EDUCATION THAT TEACHES US OUR TRUE HISTORY AND OUR ROLE IN THE PRESENT-DAY SOCIETY.
We believe in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of the self. If you do not have knowledge of yourself and your position in the society and in the world, then you will have little chance to know anything else.
These schools were similar to the Freedom Schools in Mississippi instituted by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Both Freedom Schools and Liberation Schools focused on political awareness but liberation schools built a curriculum that combined traditional subjects with activities that put students in direct contact with the systems of racial and class inequities that led to the civil rights and Black liberation struggles.
The schools instituted experiential learning models that, according to Erica Huggins—a director of one of the schools and former Lincoln University of Pennsylvania student, “came from the socialist principles we tried to live in the Black Panther Party. One of them being critical thinking—that children should learn not what to think but how to think.”
Not only were Black children taught how to think critically, but they were taught Black history by primarily Black teachers, for free and received three meals a day. In fact, it was the BPP’s Breakfast for Children Program (BCP) that put pressure on the federal government to feed children before school.
Side note: In a memo to all FBI offices, J. Edgar Hoover said of the BCP, that it was “potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.” Feeding children, a threat—white supremacy is a helluva drug.
Thankfully, the tradition of Liberation Schools continues today.
The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), founded by civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman, has its own model of Freedom Schools incorporating the best of the SNCC’s Freedom Schools model and the BPP’s Liberation School model. These schools are tuition-free, culturally relevant programs to support youth literacy over a six week period in the summer. These Freedom Schools are held around the country in schools, faith-based buildings, juvenile detention facilities and on college campuses. Students receive two healthy meals and a snack each day.
There are 181 freedom schools in 28 states. Many Black activists built on Marian Edelman Wright’s work, including the Philadelphia Freedom Schools (PFS). Other organizations, like the Center for Black Educator Development, stood on their collective shoulders and launched Freedom Schools to address additional needs their communities were facing today; one such program is the Freedom Schools Literacy Academy, which was held virtually to meet the demands of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Although the BPP of the late 1960’s and 1970’s is no more, the legacy of the liberation schools endure; as does the legacy of the Breakfast for Children Program. Liberation schools continued the tradition of midnight schools during Black enslavement; teaching Black people how to read under the threat of violence. Independent Black schools like Nidhamu Sasa continued the Black Educate to Liberate tradition.
Frederick Douglass shared that his enslaver said that if “[Douglass] learns to read… it will forever unfit him to be a slave.” Likewise, if a Black child is well educated, s/he will be forever equipped to resist enslavement today.
Freedom Schools today continue the tradition of the Panthers and the ancestors of the antebellum, “unfitting” Black children for enslavement of the mind. Schools led and facilitated by Black educators may be the key to unlocking all that education has to offer Black children within a white supremacist society.
We must stop trying to soften Eurocentric educational approaches and ground our work in historic Black pedagogy and practices.
The Panthers provided us with a guide that the Center for Black Educator Development and sites across America are following. Maybe the rest of us ought to listen.