The Brilliance and Beauty of Black Power Schools
By: Dr. Abigail Mariam
A treasured part of the legacy of Black education in the United States has been that the classroom could be a space of forging liberation and imagining freedom for Black people. For as long as there have been Black folks here, there have been strategic efforts to take advantage of education as a space to enact social change for Black communities. Learning to read on plantations, establishing schools through the Freedmen’s Bureau during Reconstruction, developing pedagogies in segregated schools during Jim Crow, and the rise of Freedom Schools during the civil rights movement are just some examples of how Black students and teachers carried and passed the torch of resistance to racial discrimination as a part of their schooling.
Many people name the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case, which made segregated classrooms illegal, as a landmark victory in American education. Yet, as many racial justice activists of that time came to learn, this legal decision did little to change the lived reality, the material and psychological discrimination, that Black students continued to face in white-dominated educational spaces.
Following the traditions of Black educators before them, in the Black Power movement, of the late 1960’s and 1970’s, organizers and activists championed the fight for Black liberation in classrooms as much as on the streets. When faced with the failures of desegregation policy, one approach they took was to create their own independent schools for Black students. There were dozens of schools around the country, founded and run by members of local Black Power organizations in their cities.
The leaders at these schools prioritized making sure Black students were being nurtured in their gifts and taught about subjects far beyond basic skills. Many of these schools focused on teaching students about their African cultural background and history. For these schools, African cultural values, such as the Nguzo Saba or the seven tenets of Kwanzaa, were the bedrock of pedagogy and practice. For some schools, teaching students about solidarity and collaboration with other people experiencing racial or class discrimination was central to their approach. Though different schools emphasized different topics in their curriculum, they often shared a commitment to care for the whole student. Many schools provided quality meals for their students and collaborated with community organizations to provide cultural enrichment and basic services for students and their families. What was shared across these schools was a vision of using education as an environment to create new possibilities for Black students and to help them envision a new world for themselves.
Former students, teachers, and parents from these schools testify to how transformative these educational spaces truly were. The students, now adults in their mid-life, remember how they were taught to love themselves as Black people and have a sense of pride in their abilities because of how they felt at their schools. Teachers remark on how their time at these schools set them on a path of community activism and liberatory pedagogy in their teaching in public school contexts. These were spaces where they were worldbuilding, a term I use to describe how social activists can use educational spaces to enact agendas of social change. Through these classrooms, people experienced freedom, in the longstanding tradition of Black educational spaces.
In 2024, we are need of reviving and living into the kind of worldbuilding that Black educators have championed throughout American history. What kinds of worlds are already being built, with the latest debates on “critical race theory” and attacks on social justice pedagogies? What agendas for social change are those activists trying to implement?
For any educator seeking to be a part of the educational legacy of Black educators and activists, it is our duty to learn from their example and do what we can to create transformational spaces in our classrooms. We can sit at the feet of our forbears and draw from their wisdom to build worlds that uplift all our students and draw on the collective power of our communities.
Dr. Abigail Mariam is a researcher, storyteller, and community educator committed to elevating the brilliance of children and their communities and equipping students with tools to critically analyze their world. Her research is on the pedagogy and politics of Black Power-era independent schools.