When you think of the history of Black education in the United States, you might think of Brown vs. Board of Education and the fight to integrate public schools. But there's a parallel history too, of Black people pooling their resources to educate and empower themselves independently.
Enslaved people learned to read and write whenever and wherever they could, often in secret and against the law. "In accomplishing this, I was compelled to resort to various stratagems,"like convincing white children to help him, wrote Frederick Douglass. "I had no regular teacher."
After the Civil War, says educator Kaya Henderson, Black people started "freedmen's schools" to teach former slaves literacy and the other skills they would need to participate as citizens. "In the 12-year period that is Reconstruction," she adds, "we started 5,000 community schools. We started 37 historically black colleges and universities."
A century later, during the civil rights movement, educators founded "freedom schools" combining basic literacy with civic skills, like how to register to vote.
And in 1969, the Black Panther Party started a free breakfast program for schoolchildren. Eventually it fed tens of thousands of hungry kids oranges, eggs and chocolate milk at 45 sites around the country. J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, reportedly got the Chicago police to try to sabotage the program, because he considered it to be such powerful positive messaging for the radical movement he was determined to destroy. Instead, the federal government joined the effort; President Richard M. Nixon increased funding to guarantee all qualifying children a right to free lunch at school.
"We have a tradition of educating ourselves and we've forgotten that," Henderson says.
Now, she's started her own effort, dubbed Reconstruction.us, as a way of continuing that tradition.
Henderson led the Washington, D.C., public school system from 2010 to 2016. There, she worked to diversify the curriculum to ensure that students had both "windows" on the broader world, but also "mirrors" that reflected themselves. The result? "When those kids saw themselves in the curriculum, they came alive. They felt validated. They saw their communities as worthy and they just operated differently."
But, Henderson says, time is limited in traditional public schools, and she wanted to see what could be done with a voluntary, supplemental program where the teachers and the children were all Black.
"I thought a lot about my friends who went to Hebrew school on the weekends or Chinese school on the weekends" — a place to maybe learn a language, pick up some cultural know-how and affirm a positive identity. "Other ethnic groups don't rely on the government to teach their kids about themselves. Why are we relying on the government to teach black kids about our history, our culture, our heroes and heroines, our folktales?"
Henderson and her leadership team, including her co-founder, Harvard economist Roland Fryer, Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children's Zone, and Kenya Bradshaw of TNTP, started cooking up the idea in late 2019, and intended to launch in early 2021. But the pandemic and its huge disruptions to education, followed by the racial justice upheaval last summer, pushed them to get started this past fall.
Reconstruction.us is a for-profit startup that offers live video classes over Zoom. They range from soul food cooking, to Black feminism, to the tradition of West African griot — oratory and storytelling skills. There's even a class called Black Shakespeare, where readers explore themes like migration and slavery in plays like Othello and The Tempest.
The classes cost $10 for each one-hour Zoom session, typically 10 sessions to a class. They've hired hundreds of tutors and signed up several thousand students so far.
Nia Warren, one of the tutors on the platform, is taking a gap year from Harvard and teaching a literature course. "One of my classes was all Black girls, and that made me so happy because I never had a black female teacher," she said.
When she was growing up, Warren says, she didn't get to see herself reflected in history class, either. "I didn't get to hear a lot about the things that black people did, besides, like, Martin Luther King and these token figures."
Eleven-year-old Zoe Cobb lives in Chicago, where she's going to school remotely. She loved her Reconstruction literature course, "even though it was another Zoom, which i was originally not a big fan of."
She read Ghost Boys, by Jewell Parker Rhodes, about a young boy killed by police, which introduces characters like Emmett Till. Cobb calls it "kind of like a book club filled with kids of color," from all over the country, some of whom have become her friends.
Henderson says Reconstruction was always intended to be an extracurricular program. But with the pandemic pushing so much education online, they've been partnering with school districts, and offering courses free to students, including on math and reading. "We felt like there were ways to take the academic standards and content and bring them alive in a blackity-black way."
For example, in a math class, they ask students to pretend they are running the Black Panthers' free-breakfast program: "Planning for how many chairs you need, how many meals you need. What happens if more kids come or less kids come?" For Henderson's part, she's hoping a lot more kids come to get what they're dishing out.