Interview by a high school junior for a 2012 National History Day Project contest. The theme was Revolution, Reaction and Reform and his topic the Mississippi Freedom Schools of 1964.
What was your inspiration for teaching in the Freedom Mississippi Schools?
I was an exchange student at Spelman College, the spring of 1964, one of 13 white students on a campus of 700 African American students. Staughton Lynd was a professor at Spelman. I took a seminar with him, titled "Nonviolence in America". He was to be director of the freedom schools that summer and talked about the philosophy and plans for the freedom schools. He asked the students to think about applying to be freedom school teachers. That's the reason I applied to be a freedom school teacher.
The broader issues of why I wanted to go to Mississippi can be found on our website in my talk to my church, "Why I am going to Mississippi."
As a teacher, did you learn anything from your students? If so, what did you
If you haven't already, you should read my piece, "Three Letters from a Freedom School Teacher" on our website.
I facilitated what we called a "Negro History" class. The students were teenage and young adult women. I didn't know any Black history before I taught this class. I told the class what I had learned from reading the hand-outs I'd gotten at the training in Oxford, Ohio before coming to Mississippi. Then we talked.
I learned from what the students shared about their lives. One of the students in the morning class was Rita Walker. You can find information about her on the website. She was a bit older and she taught me a lot about what it meant to be a Black woman in Mississippi.
What was the most rewarding experience that you took from teaching in the
The relationship with the students, especially their enthusiasm for learning. Also, I had the privilege of assisting an experienced teacher from New York, Debby Flynn, help the students write their own play, Seeds of Freedom. You can see my notes on that play at the end of my "Three Letters" piece on the website [cited above].
Interviewer: If you were given the opportunity to teach in Freedom Schools again, would you seize the opportunity?
Yes and I have. There was a San Francisco Freedom School in San Francisco starting in 2005. This was a summer school open to adults and youth. There were no fees and you got no credit. People came to learn, just like in the Mississippi Freedom Schools.
I would go and tell about my experiences in Holly Springs, Mississippi. I also coordinated other veterans of the Southern Freedom Movement to go and tell of their experiences. The SF Freedom School stopped in 2010. One of the former organizers then taught a course on the Civil Rights Movement at San Francisco State University. Again I and other veterans of the Civil Rights Movement spoke in her classes until she retired in 2020. I continue to do public speaking about being in Mississippi and coordinate other speakers from our group, the Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement.
However, a freedom school is not just about the Civil Rights Movement. I organized a women's liberation school with six other women in 1970 called Breakaway, where I taught a class on understanding racism and white supremacy. I have also taught in other alternative schools, including the Liberation School, the Socialist School in the 1970s and Open Forum in the 1990s. I've led workshops about racism in the woman suffrage movement and writing workshops for activists to think about and write about their experiences in the various movements for social change. Again these were schools where people came to learn and students did not get credit or grades. We were all there to learn together. Donations supported the expenses.
I was not and am not a trained teacher. In addition to never having to worry about grades, I also have always worked in non-hierarchical situations. In the Mississippi freedom schools, and in all the other community schools, there was never the assumption that the teacher was smarter, that is better, than the students. Rather the teacher shared what she or he knew and was respected for her expertise and knowledge, and the students were also respected for what they knew, including what they had experienced and what they thought. In Mississippi that meant that the students knew a lot more than the northern freedom school teachers about the violence and discrimination and what it meant to be a Black person in Mississippi.
What do you think that you and your students had most in common?
I would say we shared a belief in the Freedom Movement; the struggle for equality and justice for all people, an end to segregation and any form of discrimination, and treating all people with respect and dignity. Please note I used the terms "Freedom Movement" and "the struggle". In other words, we understood it's not enough to believe in something. You have to work for it, including using the tactic of nonviolent protest to stand against unjust laws.
Copyright © Chude Allen
For background & more information see:
Freedom Summer: Freedom Schools history
Freedom School web links
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