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The Charlottesville Freedom School

a classroom full of young drummers

by Naila A. Smith, PhD; featured photo provided by Barbara M. Fitch

In the summer of 1964, a group of students coordinated the first Freedom School in the state of Mississippi and started a movement that continues to this day and takes place all over the country including in Charlottesville, Virginia. Freedom Schools were born out of the Civil Rights Movement. Members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who started the first Freedom School had been a part of the March on Washington in 1963 and wanted to do something youth-led and enduring that provided the community with literacy and citizenship tools to bring about social change in their communities. The purpose of the freedom school was to provide young Mississippians with culturally and socially relevant curricula (i.e., lessons about Black history, equality, and freedom) that would empower them to become leaders in their communities. 

Today, Freedom Schools across the country, funded by the Children’s Defense Fund, continue to adhere to this mission and the Charlottesville Freedom School (CFS) is no different. CFS is a 6-week summer literacy program for rising 3rd-8th graders in the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle county hosted at the St. Anne’s-Belfield School. The CFS is always free to the children who attend and this year approximately 50 students were enrolled out of a total of 170 applications received. At Freedom School, youth attendees are called “scholars” and CFS facilitators are current undergraduate students who are called “servant leader interns.” Each year Freedom Schools across the nation focus on an important social issue and each individual school develops its own theme. This year the national focus was gun violence and CFS’ theme was oral history and storytelling. 

The oral history project is the brainchild of Drs. Derrick Alridge and Johari Harris. Dr. Alridge is the Executive Director of CFS and Director for the Center for Race and Public Education in the South (CRPES) at the University of Virginia (UVA) where the Teachers in the Movement Oral History Project, an inspiration for this theme, resides. Dr. Harris is a developmental psychologist, Assistant Professor at Kennesaw State University, and director of the Educating for Democracy Initiative, another CRPES program. Dr. Harris was one of the original founders of the CFS when it began four years ago at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

For the CFS oral history project, CFS scholars interview individuals who have been directly or indirectly affected by gun violence in the community, such as their parents, grandparents, or other community members. 

Oral history is storytelling. It is a first person account or narrative of an individual or community about a past event or past events. This form of communication is very prevalent in communities of color because it was a way to pass on stories multi-generationally in communities where enslavement, oppression, and discrimination limited written documentation of lived experiences. These stories, which have not always been valued by historians, are important sources that can provide a different perspective or an opposing account to what has been written about a person or event. Oral history, therefore, is often radical, as it counters the erasure of Black lives from the historical record.

This project is also empowering for CFS scholars because, according to Dr. Alridge, it teaches them “not to be merely receivers of or bystanders to history but to be history makers and engaged in history themselves, not to just read about the history of the Freedom struggle but to go out and collect that history themselves.”

The focus on telling Black history is not unique to the CFS; Freedom Schools across the country follow a well-developed curriculum that emphasizes five essential components that seek to ensure that children receive culturally relevant pedagogy to enhance their understanding of themselves and their social worlds. These components are: 

  1. High Quality Academic Enrichment to build on and in some cases challenge what scholars learn in schools; 
  2. Parent and Family Development to foster parent engagement by including them in programming such as the cultural enrichment speaker series and interviewees in the oral history project;
  3. Civic Engagement and Social Action to engage in action to promote social change. For example, last year scholars wrote letters to Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, urging him to support environmental measures to keep climate safe;
  4. Intergenerational Servant Leadership, provided by college students who receive four weeks of intensive training before beginning their charge. Servant leaders help facilitate scholar’s literacy skills and socioemotional learning, but also learn a lot about the community and themselves through the process; and
  5. Nutritional and Mental Health, met through the provision of meals (breakfast, snacks, lunch) and supportive relationships throughout Freedom School.

The impact of Freedom Schools are many including improvement in reading skills, especially for those who were reading below grade level, and avoidance of summer learning loss. The curriculum plays a role in fostering these results but also Freedom School days are jam-packed with many opportunities for scholars to immerse themselves in books about their community and people who look like them. 

After breakfast, scholars take part in “Harambe,” which means “comes together.” During this period, all scholars, servant leader interns, and staff meet together, sing songs, chant, and a guest reads a book to the children. According to Dr. Alridge, children of all ages love this. After Harambe, servant leaders engage scholars in the Freedom School curriculum until lunch time. After lunch they can play for a half hour, before the afternoon session when they work on their oral history project. 

Sandwiched between “playtime” and “work time” is a 15-minute period when all scholars must select a book and read quietly. The Freedom School book list is carefully curated to provide a wide range of multiethnic and multicultural options such as books about African American, Latinx, and immigrant history, stories about people of color, and books about substantive contemporary social issues. The availability of these books is critical because many children, especially those from poorer backgrounds, may lack access to a wide selection of books and a quiet place to read. Given the important role reading plays in sharpening thinking and writing, this carved out time for communal reading is a powerful one, especially at a time in history where digital technologies can be a major source of distraction and when fewer children are reading for pleasure

Freedom Schools started 60 years ago, arising out of the Civil Rights Movement. But as Dr. Alridge shared, “movements don’t stop. They don’t end although we are in a different era.” He highlighted that the movement to protect our environment, teach a more culturally relevant history, and end gun violence are all highly salient present-day movements. Further, he shared that the movement to embrace each other regardless of our race, gender, or religion are core components of the movements we are in today. He sees today’s movement as much more expansive than in the 60’s as we are in a movement seeking equality among all people.

To support the Charlottesville Freedom School (CFS), apply for your child to be a scholar at the next Freedom School by visiting the CFS website, Email to become a future Harambe reader, volunteer, or a servant leader, or to donate.

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