When you think of the history of black education in the United States, you might think of Brown vs. Board of Education and the struggle to integrate public schools. But there is also a parallel story in which blacks pool their resources to educate and empower themselves independently.
Enslaved people learned to read and write whenever and wherever they could, often in secret and against the law. “To do this, I was forced to resort to various strategies,” wrote Frederick Douglass, how to convince white children to help him. “I didn’t have a regular teacher.”
After the Civil War, educator Kaya Henderson said, blacks established “Freedmen’s Schools” to teach former slaves literacy and the other skills they would need to participate as citizens. “In the twelve years of rebuilding, we established 5,000 community schools,” she adds. “We have established 37 historically black colleges and universities.”
A century later, during the civil rights movement, educators founded “freedom schools” that combined basic literacy with civic skills, such as registering to vote.
And in 1969 the Black Panther Party started a free breakfast program for school children. After all, tens of thousands of hungry children were fed oranges, eggs and chocolate milk at 45 locations across the country. J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, According to reports prompted the Chicago police to try to sabotage the program because they believed it was such a strong positive message for the radical movement that he was desperate to destroy. Instead, the federal government joined the effort; President Richard M. Nixon increased funding to guarantee the right to free school lunch for all qualified children.
“We have a tradition of learning and we forgot,” says Henderson.
Now she has started her own effort, called Reconstruction.us, to continue that tradition.
Henderson directed the public school system in Washington, DC from 2010 to 2016. There she worked to diversify the curriculum to ensure that students had both “windows” to the wider world and “mirrors” that reflected themselves. The result? “When these children saw themselves in the curriculum, they came alive. They felt validated. They saw their communities as worthy and just worked differently.”
According to Henderson, time in traditional public schools is limited and she wanted to know what can be achieved with a voluntary add-on program where the teachers and children are all black.
“I’ve thought a lot about my friends who went to Hebrew school on weekends or Chinese school on weekends” – a place where you might learn a language, acquire cultural know-how, and affirm a positive identity. “Other ethnic groups do not rely on the government to teach their children about themselves. Why do we rely on the government to teach black children our history, our culture, our heroes and heroines, our fairy tales?”
Henderson and her leadership team, including Geoffrey Canada of Harlem Children’s Zone and Kenya Bradshaw of TNTP, began working on the idea in late 2019 and intended to get it off the ground in early 2021. But the pandemic and its tremendous disruption to education followed. The upheavals in racial justice last summer pushed them to get going last fall.
Reconstruction.us is a for-profit startup that offers live video courses through Zoom. They range from soul food cooking to black feminism and the tradition of West African grandparents and storytelling. There’s even a class called Black Shakespeare where readers examine topics like migration and slavery in plays like Othello and The Tempest.
Classes cost $ 10 for each one-hour Zoom session, typically 10 sessions per class. You have hired hundreds of tutors and enrolled several thousand students so far.
Nia Warren, one of the tutors on the platform, spends a year at Harvard teaching a literature class. “One of my classes was all black girls and that made me so happy because I never had a black teacher,” she said.
When she was growing up, Warren said, she couldn’t find herself in history class either. “I haven’t heard much about the things black people have done other than Martin Luther King and those token figures.”
Eleven year old Zoe Cobb lives in Chicago, where she goes to school from afar. She loved her rebuilding literature class, “although it was just another zoom that I wasn’t originally a huge fan of.”
She read Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, about a boy killed by the police, which introduces characters like Emmett Till. Cobb calls it “a kind of book club full of colored kids” from around the country, some of whom have become her friends.
Henderson says that rebuilding was always intended as an after-school program. As the pandemic is driving so much education online, they are partnering with school districts and offering free classes to students, including math and reading. “We felt there were ways to bring academic standards and content to life in a black and black way.”
For example, in a math class, they would ask students to pretend they were doing the Black Panthers’ free breakfast program: “Plan how many chairs you will need, how many meals you will need. What if more or fewer children come? ” ? “Henderson’s part is hoping a lot more kids will come to get what they’re spending.