Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

I've Got to Do Something for My People: Black Women Teachers of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Schools

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

I've Got to Do Something for My People: Black Women Teachers of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Schools

Article excerpt

The summer of 1964 marked an important time in American history. With little money and few supplies, the Freedom Schools set out to empower African Americans in Mississippi to become active citizens and change agents in their respective communities. In 1964, there were at least forty-one Freedom School sites located in churches, run down taverns, back porches, and under trees in various counties in Mississippi. College age students (mostly White and from the North) caravanned first to Oxford, Ohio for education and resistance training then to various counties in Mississippi to institute all they had learned. These college age students were preparing for their participating in the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project (later known as the Mississippi Freedom Summer). The volunteers' wanted to increase voter registration amongst African Americans in Mississippi and open Freedom Schools across the state of Mississippi.

This is a collection of the lived experiences of two Black women, Denise and Mildred (pseudonyms). They recount their experiences as teachers in 1964 Mississippi Freedom Schools. Their life stories presented focus on a key period in American history--the transition from Jim Crow to desegregation. The significance of this paper is grounded in the voices, ways of knowing, and experiences of Black women teachers of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom School. This paper offers a counter-narrative to the historical legacy of education research that silences and marginalizes the pedagogical knowledge and practices of African American women teachers.

The Magnolia State

Mississippi was the poorest state in the nation and nearly 86% of people of color lived below the national poverty line in 1964. For African Americans, participating in the democratic process of voting for their elected officials represented a new hope for a positive change in their realities. 45% of Mississippi's population was African American, yet only 5% of voting age Blacks were registered to vote (Levine, 2001). Homes, churches, and business were bombed because African Americans endeavored to register to vote.

In 1964 the average state expenditure per pupil for a student in Mississippi was $21.77 for Blacks and $81.86 for Whites (McAdam, 1988). The racially segregated schools provided White and Black students with patently unequal learning opportunities. The Freedom Schools of 1964 were considered a necessary component of the Mississippi Freedom Summer. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized Freedom Summer to help Mississippians combat the educational disparities among Blacks and Whites in public schools and ensure all residents were registered to vote. In the 1963 prospectus for the summer Freedom Schools, Charlie Cobb described,

   Mississippi education, for Black or White, is
   grossly in adequate in comparison with education
   around the country. Negro education in Mississippi
   is the most inadequate and inferior in the state.
   Mississippi's impoverished educational system is
   also burdened with virtually a complete absence
   of academic freedom, and students are forced to
   live in an environment that is geared to squashing
   intellectual curiosity and different thinking. (1991,
   p. 1)

He goes on to describe the educational system in Mississippi terms of a "social paralysis" where Negro students were thrown out of classes for asking questions about the freedom rides and voting rights. This was the case in Mississippi and throughout the South. "Black schools were inferior to White schools; and along with this, the almost contradictory belief that education was one of the main avenues to greater opportunity and a better life" (Cobb, 2008, p. 71).

Cobb (2008) also described new brick school buildings were built to give the illusion of "separate but equal" contained virtually bookless libraries and science labs with no equipment (p. 71). Even in the midst of the landmark piece of legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Mississippi remained a dangerous, racially segregated place for African Americans. …

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