KANSAS CITY – Forty years ago this summer, civil rights activists descended on the sweltering American South for a massive voter registration drive aimed at African-Americans. Many workers in the movement were college students, whose job was to spur the voting effort by teaching classes on literacy, Black history and civil rights. The classes became known as Freedom Schools, a large part of what's now called the Freedom Summer of 1964. Today, some social activists have resurrected the Freedom School idea, as KCUR's Matt Hackworth reports.
It's a quiet summer morning on Kansas City's east side as quiet as this urban part of town can be. But even though it's summer and school let out June 2, there aren't many kids in this neighborhood on the streets or playing on front porches. Most of the kids have been drawn inside the Mt Pleasant Baptist Church on Olive street.
This is the celebration called Hurumbee. It's Swahili for coming together, and is the first group activity of the day in the modern version of Freedom School. This is one of nine such schools in Kansas City, of around 30 across the country designed to reach out to inner-city youth. At this school, every week day from 8 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon, students from one of the area's roughest neighborhoods sing, learn and read about the African-American experience. The warm reception inside this church offers a stark difference from the boarded-up houses and vacant lots that surround it. Program director Dr Michael Charles says Freedom Schools offer kids something they don't get during the school year.
"The freedom to express themselves if you had something like a Hurumbee in a regular school they'd probably put the teacher out because they'd say it's just too much noise. This program allows them to do that in a safe environment without being punished for doing something like that."
The safe environment is also one where the kids can eat, too. Children who might otherwise go hungry receive two meals and a snack each day. Program Manager Carolyn Booker says with full stomachs, kids can better concentrate on other activities, like reading.
"This program centers around reading. Not teaching reading as such, we don't teach the phonics and those kinds of things but we do strategies that help children learn to love reading and also help them understand what they read."
A group of about a dozen kids sit in a circle around a young college student they call Miss Mileah. Books are everywhere at the school. The authors are African American, and many of the selections deal with black history, or the black experience in America. The freedom schools movement is rooted by literacy programs. Forty years ago, some poor southern blacks learned to read on the floors of homes and in church buildings. The idea was that, if blacks in the segregated south knew how to read, they'd be more empowered and likely to vote. In today's freedom school, director Michael Charles says there's an equal stake for African Americans in America's cities.
"That goal still remains because we still try to make sure our population of people get registered to vote but there are also other things we focus on with our social action, such as the insurance piece. A lot of parents don't know that there is insurance available for their children."
Parents of kids in freedom schools are required to attend four evening seminars, largely focused around civic involvement and parenting themes. During the day, the older children in freedom schools form their own society. They elect a mayor and a judge, hold town hall meetings and even create businesses. The kids give back to the society they create, and there's evidence Freedom School students give back to society in real life, too. Ronell Bell is a former Freedom School student who returned to work as an intern when he went to college.
"I live like, right down here on 24th and Indiana. It wasn't a very good neighborhood when I lived there. When I came here, it's like my second family. There's so much love inside freedom school, you take that love back to where you live at. And so, you don't go home angry and upset, you go home happy. That's really what it was for me."
There are several others like Ronnell, who returned to Freedom School to work with kids who know similar challenges from the streets. Crystal Turner is a fidgety 12 year-old who's been in the program three years.
"We know it's a safe place. We can come here, have fun, we don't have to worry about no other problems because we can just come here and be ourselves, have fun, enjoy the day."
Kansas City's program has been in place since 1995. The billion-dollar Kauffman Foundation then supported just two freedom schools in Kansas City. But in 2002, new foundation president Carl Schramm said he visited one of the schools on a routine tour, and instantly fell in love with the idea.
"Presidents of foundation aren't supposed to act that way. We're supposed to be hyper rational. But this program was so evidently effective, the kids were so engaged, the counselors and faculty were so enthralled by what they were doing, one could see immediately that this was something that needed support. "
Schramm led a movement to donate almost $13 million to expand Kansas City's freedom school program from two to nine sites, and set up six schools in Saint Louis. Now, Kansas City has more Freedom Schools than any other US city. Organizers say they have anecdotal evidence that the Freedom School's emphasis on scholarship is having a positive impact on traditional classrooms. There are plans for a study about how children from Freedom Schools compare to children who spend their summers far removed from books, songs and civic involvement.