An Activist & Freedom School Teacher
Chude Pam Parker Allen

[As told to and discussed by Freedom Movement veterans and family members at a story-telling session, U.C. Berkeley, September 30, 2018.]

Movement VeteransFamily & Guests
Chude Pam Parker Allen (volunteer)Philip Canterbury
Linda Wetmore Halpern (volunteer)Carolyn Canterbury
Janet Heinritz-Canterbury, SNCC  Elliot Halpern
Daphne Muse, SNCCJoann Heinritz
 Randi Lauderdale, MLK Freedom Center

Chude: I'm Chude Allen, and I was a Freedom School teacher in Holly Springs, Mississippi in the summer of '64. I had been an exchange student at Spelman College that spring, one of 13 white students on a campus of about 700 Black students. By the end of that semester a lot of the students felt that was about 12 white kids too many. And that's one of the times that I started to learn about integration, that it's one thing to have one or two people, but as you start getting larger numbers, certain issues come up that weren't there before.

I think of the exchange students who were at Spelman from '61, '62, '63 and '64 from my college, Carlton, College (the person that went in '63 didn't stay). Someone was there in '61, and she was not allowed to maintain her major at Carlton which was art, because of going away to Spelman. So that's how she was penalized. '62 was Cathy Cade who's in another of our Freedom Movement story telling groups here today. She was a sociology major which meant she was much more supported [at Carlton?].

The first person did not become an activist. She was on the campus; she was a good student, and she believed in education as the answer. And she did write letters back to Carlton, and so we got to read those before we went. She found the [southern] mass meetings frightening, because there was so much emotion.

Cathy went in '63, and she joined SNCC, and she worked with SNCC. She went down to Southwest Georgia that summer and then came back to Carlton, and one of the things she did at Carlton was bring Frank Smith who was a SNCC worker, actually working in Holly Springs then, to come to Carlton to speak.

Two of us went in '64, and we both worked in the local community in Atlanta, and then we both went to Mississippi as Freedom School teachers that summer. In the spring of '64 at Spelman, I was privileged to be part of a seminar on "Nonviolence in America" that Staughton Lynd led, and Staughton Lynd became the director for the Freedom Schools that summer. So that was partly my link was that he was encouraging us to go, but he also was encouraging us to think about what kind of education is vital and alive.

I've always had a very difficult time talking about the Freedom School, that experience. I can talk about being an activist. I can talk about what it was like to go to that training. I was in the second training [session in Ohio] in the summer of '64. [Chaney, Schwerner & Goodman] were already missing that week. Our first day we were told that three workers were already missing from the first group. I can talk about that. I can talk about many of the things that I learned. But the teaching itself has always been very hard for me to talk about.

And over the years, I think what I want to mainly focus on today is that there were mistakes. I made mistakes. And there is a way, especially when you're young, but for all of us, the mistakes stay with us, and we kind of push them into the background. And as I've been able to really begin to think about those and bring them up and share them when I speak, I've realized how much of a good learning experience that is for students and for other people that hear me. That we don't just talk about the things we were good at, but we talk about the mistakes we made, the things we weren't good at.

So one of the purposes of the Freedom Schools in the summer of '64 was to help students begin to think critically and participate in the Movement and to become leaders. There was also remedial [education] help that people [provided]. But the key thing was: How could we help the students and ourselves to learn how to think critically? And so we were very much encouraged to have a dialogue, that we weren't just there to impart knowledge.

I think in Freedom Schools, there were students who wanted to either learn French, or in Holly Springs, it was nursing. We had a nurse on our project. And there was no illusion that in six or eight weeks that you were going to learn this, but they wanted that opportunity to have access to a language they had never heard, because we're talking about students who were very under-educated. They were not being given anywhere near the opportunities.

So in that sense, going into Mississippi I was very excited about this idea of participating in dialogues with students about how to think. And I was given a class. Holly Springs was a large project, and we had a lot of students. And so I was given the older teenaged girls and a couple young women. That was my main class, and it was what we then called "Negro History." And of course I had never been educated about Black history, so we had a mimeographed thing of paper. And I was one lesson plan ahead of the class, right?

And also, in the afternoon, I could make up my own — other things I wanted to do. We had a professional teacher on our project who was from New York City, and one of the things she did in her classes was help the kids develop plays, and so we had the teenaged boys and girls who wanted to, they developed a play, and they focused on Medgar Evers, the killing of Medgar Evers and how his family might have responded to it. And so every afternoon we would get together.

We were [located] opposite Rust College, a Black college campus, so we could go up on the lawn of the campus and work. And they would come up with things, and she would write it down, and then she would type it that night, and then they'd get their script. And we did such a good job, they did — I was just a support person — I was the assistant, that they were then invited at the end of the summer to go to Meridian, Mississippi to the Freedom School Convention and present their play to the Freedom School students. So it was an honor and just a privilege to have both watched this teacher work and be an observer of what happened.

I also — and this will be the first mistake discussion — I also decided to teach a class on religion, because I was a religion major in college. And so of course we had on our project a lot of different workers, and people sometimes think — especially about the white workers, you know, they say all these white kids came from the North with this concept that we were all the same, which of course we were not. There were New York Jews, and there was a Quaker from Indiana who was a farmer. I mean, there was this wide range. I came from rural Pennsylvania but not rural like rural-rural. It was still 35 miles from Philadelphia and 60 miles from New York. So it was not in the case of the middle of nowhere, but I certainly was not sophisticated, and I was not a city person. So there was this wide range. Well, if I was going to do a workshop on religion, I thought: What better way to start than with the atheists, right? [General laughter]

You got it, right? So here I am with this group of kids who are either Roman Catholics or Baptists. There's nobody else, right? I mean, and they are just blown away. I invite Peter Cummings, and he comes in and he starts talking about being an atheist. So the Roman Catholic girls — I mean, they were going to a Roman Catholic school run by nuns. They go running to the nuns, because they have never heard anything like this. The nuns insist on meeting me, and I have to go meet the nuns to explain how I could possibly think —  You know, who do you think you are? What kind of a religion major are you? [General laughter]

So I share that now when I speak. And of course, what is the lesson? The lesson is: You start where people are. Hello! But you know, I was 20 years old. [General laughter] So anyway, that's the lighthearted mistake, but hey.

The other key thing I wanted to speak about — which is the harder one — but I hope it will become clearer about the meaning of a Freedom School by what happened when I shared in the Negro history class a lesson on Haiti. And this was a very powerful day. I would read it, and then I would come in with the lesson plan, and then I would share it with these young women. And this is of course the story of the slaves, the enslaved people of Haiti winning their freedom, fighting not once but twice against the French and against the English. And it was a very powerful class, and to watch the students face that they won and then they get defeated back, and then they win again. And it was just thrilling.

And I wrote about it, it was one of the letters I wrote home. I mean it was just, for me not just for my students, it was just a thrilling moment. So, I knew nothing about Haiti. I only knew what was on that piece of paper. So when I come out of the South, and I begin to become more politically active, I discovered that Haiti is a dictatorship and the poorest country in the hemisphere. And I spent years ambivalent about what that meant. I mean I was following the guidelines, but what it meant to tell a story and not finish it?

So last year I was speaking at a class at San Francisco State on the Civil Rights Movement, and I brought this question up, of I'm still confused and ambivalent about that. And what should I have done? And it was towards the end of my talk, and when I asked the students: "What do you think I should've done?" There was kind of a silence, and then somebody started to raise their hand, and that teacher said: "Nope, if you've spoken before, if you've asked a question, you can't do it." So there was more silence. And then finally this young Filipino student said: "I think you should've done what you did, he said, "Because I have never had, until coming into college, any positive information about the struggles of my people."

And I looked at him, and I thought: 'Oh.' And I said, "Well, what about if I'd known more? What about if the next day then I'd come in and talked about what happened?" With some analysis and of course knowledge. And I'm sharing that because for me that's an example of the best of the Freedom Schools back then and even to today, is that I didn't have the answer. But when I asked the students, his feedback, that then helped me to finally make a step that I'd been trying to make for 50 years. [Applause]

Woman: That's amazing.

Woman: You're sticking with it. [General laughter]

Chude: But Linda, you were a Freedom Schoolteacher — 

Linda: Are you saying, 'You're next'? Is that what you're basically saying?

Chude: We get to have some — 

Linda: Oh dialogue before we go on? I actually did not stay a Freedom Schoolteacher, for exactly that same reason, because I was in Greenville, Mississippi. My field secretary was Stokely Carmichael. I had no idea we had such similar backgrounds, because I came from rural Massachusetts, 20 miles outside of Boston. Not rural Iowa, but it's still exceedingly sheltered and naove. I was a theology major. [General laughter]

I had gone to — well, I want to comment on your Freedom School experience. I didn't know anything. That's why I didn't — Stokely said, 'I guess you'll teach in the Freedom Schools, right?' Just assuming, when he's writing everything down, and I said, 'Yeah, yeah, that sounds good.' He said, 'OK, I want you to teach Frederick Douglas.' And I looked at him like, 'Who's Frederick Douglas?' I didn't know who he was. And he looked at me, and he goes, 'What are you doing down here?'

And it was like, you know, he put me on — and that's the way my summer began. And Stokely and I would just be fire and water all the time! We were going at it. But he said, 'I don't want you teaching. You've got to pull out African history.' I didn't even know who Richard Wright was. I didn't know anything that they were intending to teach. So I didn't go there.

But I have to say I did become a teacher at Castlemont High School in Oakland. I retired after 40-something years out there. And I worked with new teachers, and I'm always talking about Haiti. And with the English teachers and the History teachers, do you have Haiti on your curriculum? Is it there? And this year, I walked into two classes of History and English, and their curriculum — they're all talking about Haiti. The resistance.

And this is what I learned, like you were saying, if you're going to teach about oppression, you better sure as hell have resistance in there, because that's the lesson. It's the struggle. And the fact that dictatorships fall under — like in South Africa, somebody said it's worse now than ever. But the struggle. I mean, there's more dialogue that has to happen, like what after? But when students just hear oppression, oppression, it's like, [Sigh] 'Oh God, all you're gonna do is talk about slavery?' We're talking about the resistance that has been smothered, because to the victors goes the rights to the curriculum, right? The books are written. So that was my comment.

Chude: That's great! Other comments?

Daphne: I think that listening to both of you, I think about the fact that the Freedom School curriculum and teaching tools had a real impact on ethnic studies programs and helped to inform materials for some of those programs. And I think its importance [should not] be underestimated. So what you didn't know, your critical thinking skills were good enough to figure certain things out, and also the fact that you were so forthright about what you didn't know, and you didn't allow your white privilege to come in there and say, 'Oh, you know! I'm a student at such and such, and let me tell you!' You know, you stood up, and you said, 'I don't know this.' And that you were also inspired by what you didn't know as opposed to turning away from it. And I think a lot of credit has to be given to you.

It's fascinating that both of you were theology majors! [General laughter] That is really a trip! Did you teach atheism too? [General laughter]

Linda: I had so many kids praying for my soul, I can't tell you! [General laughter]

Daphne: I think the two of you should do a little tap dance around that. That's just really fascinating.

Janet: So I'm curious. So you got there, and the three guys were missing? How did that affect your psyche? And how did you get to the school every day? And who you were living with? And how much personal — ?

Chude: Well, since I was coming from Spelman, I was part of a group that spring. I mean, I was already involved in picketing and the Movement at Spelman, as part of a group that spring. And because I was a very devout Christian at that point, I also had a very strong sense of the value as well as the possibility of martyrdom. I mean, you know, so I was willing to die, and I knew that was an option.

It's interesting in the Bay Area Veterans group, a small group once did a dialogue that included the question, 'Did we think we would die?' And only two of us had that concept. Most young people don't have any intention that they're gonna be the ones that died. But I think by the time I went in, since three were already missing, and I knew that they were probably dead, because I knew that's what the SNCC people thought.

Woman: Right.

Chude: That was always an option. Then I ended up, for personal reasons, in Holly Springs which was considered one of the safer places, which, when you read about Holly Springs, you realize it's a totally relative thing. But still, for the beginning of the summer, the female volunteers were on the Rust College campus, in dormitory rooms with the students. And the guys were all in the Freedom House and sleeping in the Freedom House. And then in the second half of the summer, we rented another house, because the college had closed. So I probably was safer than most people, and I was not, by circumstance, living with a family. On the other hand, there were only four people that died that summer. The three who were murdered and a man named Wayne Yancey who was on our project.

Woman: Oh, you're kidding. He was on your project?

Chude: He was on our project, and he died in a car accident after two of the — he was Black, and a local person who was Black were taking two of the white women volunteers to Memphis — we were in Northern Mississippi — to get the bus or plane, whatever they were doing to go home. And on the way home, there was an accident, and he was killed. And it's always been questionable what it was and why it happened. But it was the first time I had ever seen a dead body. So it's all great to say, 'You may die for me, or I'll die for you, and I'm willing to do this,' and it's quite another thing to actually see a person die. And that was hard. I think it was very devastating to a lot of the project.

The leadership in our project, well Cleave Sellers who headed the voter registration part, and Ivanhoe Donaldson, who was the leader of our project, Cleave wrote a book later, and he says they all went out and got drunk. Well, you know, as a white girl, I didn't go out and get drunk, but the trauma was there, and the trauma was very specific to the fact that somebody we knew had died. And probably it had been arranged. What we did know is that the person who was with him, the local person, was quite injured, and the local hospital would not treat him. And it was the local Black funeral director who put him in his hearse and took him to Memphis to be treated. And then the sheriffs told him that if he came back, he would be arrested for the murder of Wayne. So we lost him too, in the sense that he could not come back for a long time. So that's trauma. I mean, yeah, we lived with our trauma.

Philip: I was just wondering about the mass meetings. You said they frightened somebody. I've never heard anything about this. If you could describe those that would be helpful.

Chude: Well, she was there in '61, and it was too much emotion for her. Mass meetings could be extremely emotional.

Woman: SNCC meetings?

Chude: Well, they were {UNCLEAR} community.

Woman: Freedom — just community meetings.

Chude: So SNCC, SCLC. I mean, the first ones I went to were in Daddy King — as they called him — Martin Luther King, Sr.'s church in Atlanta. And there was the singing; there were the people talking, but it's especially the singing, I think. It was the singing that just brought this sense of, really of unity and oneness.

Wazir Peacock who grew up in Mississippi and was a SNCC worker and for many years, before he passed away, lived here in the Bay Area, and he was active in our group. He had been an early Freedom Singer in Mississippi and going around using singing in the churches as a way of getting into the Black churches without the whites really knowing about it and then talking to people. But there's a PBS show or a movie somewhere about the Freedom Song, about singing in the Movement. And he's shown as saying, 'It made you bigger.' So as we sang, the way he said it, is it created a space that we all went into that was bigger than any one of us as an individual.

Well, if you weren't ready to do that, it would frighten you. If you were thrilled about the idea of being part of something bigger — 

Carolyn: The way I interpreted that was that she wasn't able to deal with the emotion of confronting racism in America, which is what the singing kind of helps people to band together and rise above the reality of that injustice that we all live with. And I think it's hard for people to walk into a meeting where people are collectively addressing that reality. So that's the way I interpreted your statement, just to Phil's question. And also especially white people. I think it's very hard for white people to step out of their privilege and to say, 'I want to think about this extremely painful reality.' So that's the way I interpreted that.

Daphne: I also think just the physical presence of a large number of Black people in a room, in control, is something that she probably had never experienced before. So here she is in this room, filled with Black people, and even if they had not said a word, not spoken a word, just being in that room with that number of people, that in and of itself, how did she — you know, I can't speak for her, but that sets something up that — just like the first time I was ever in a room full of white people, these are white people!

Woman: Where's the exit?

Daphne: Yeah! [General laughter]

Daphne: That was not an easy transition! So you know, psychologically, spiritually, and then when the volume of the music, when the volume of the song, and the power that comes out of people when they sing. I mean, I'm not a Christian; I'm not a religious person, but when people start singing those songs, it's like something just wells up in me. And you know, I feel the emotion of it. So she probably — that was her first experience; hopefully it wasn't her only.

Chude: She was going to Spelman, so she was in a Black environment, but I think that next step, what you said Daphne about the people totally — I mean, you're giving up completely your identity into the group. Yes.

Elliot: I just want to add to that. Also, you know, for all of you, it took a lot of courage to do what you were doing, to get involved with this and confront this situation and what was ahead. And she just decided she didn't have the courage to do it. I mean, it could be that simple, just who she was.

Chude: Yeah. I would just say, when I speak to students, I always tell students that not everybody's gonna be on the picket line. Not everybody's gonna do that. You know, you find where you can contribute. I mean, I didn't know that when I was 20, 21. Then it was, you did this or you were no good, right? But now I understand that you need all kinds of support, and people find what works for them. And it just seems to me so important to not imply that everybody has to do the same thing.

Linda: I think part of that is the judgment that people put out. Like you just said, you were here or you were nothing. I mean, there were 700 of us down there. And I went back thinking I owned an experience that nobody else had — which was true. But it was also something that separated me out and made it very uncomfortable for me to be around any white people, because I was at an all girls school, and it was all white except for one girl in my class who was from the Congo. That was the only person of color and my roommate, who was from Puerto Rico. Nobody else in the school had even a glimmer of color. And I was so uncomfortable and so angry, but I also realized that we have to learn to connect with people. I mean, this has been an experience that is with me forever. And I still walk into rooms, and I can tell you in 60 seconds how many people of color are in that room. I mean, that's how uncomfortable I feel being around white people. And it hasn't diminished that much for me.

Joann: I guess I'm very, I want to say inspired by — I always think, what was the desire in your heart to follow this? It's like you have a dream. And I wondered if you could articulate that?

Chude: I have to be {UNCLEAR} about it. I had the privilege of working in an Episcopalian day camp in north Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the summer of '63. It was both my first experience in a Black community, and it was an all Black community, and I came from essentially a white community; there was one Black family.

So that started my experience of being in, you know, to the extent of really being with a Black community. I was living with a tremendously inspiring minister and his family. Christine Washington, his wife, was just as warm and as — I mean, that's the gift I was given. My first experience in a Black family was to be welcomed and made part of their family. And I was in an inner city church, working with kids, and it was very alive and vital, and then I would go back out to the country.

So that's how it started, and then I went to Spelman, and at Spelman, I learned that segregation, especially in the Deep South, was not a choice for white people either. So then part of my impulse to go to Mississippi was that I wanted the right to be able to have the friends and the relationships that I wanted. I had that aspect to it, as well as I did see from the talk I gave at my church about why I was going and asking for money, that I also wanted to go to help people. I mean, there were both sides to it. But certainly, I had a best friend at Spelman, and at spring break, I thought I'd go home with her — that's what you did. And she was from Montgomery, Alabama, and she said "No, you can't come home." Period. So that's the answer.

Copyright © 2019

Copyright ©
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the story and commentary above belongs to the speakers. Webspinner:
(Labor donated)