As Florida blocks Black history education, parents, allies turn to Black churches, resurrection of Freedom Schools

Black churches and Freedom Schools are now the sites where frustrated Black Florida residents are bringing family and friends to take uncensored classes on Black history.

Now that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has worked to block Advanced Placement Black history in classrooms, pushed to ban more than 1,000 books focused on race and helped limit the teaching of race in public schools and state colleges, opponents to DeSantis’ actions are bouncing back with faith-based and grassroots responses.

On the faith side, more than 300 churches in Florida have created Black history programs in their communities. Volunteer educators hold weekly classes covering American slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights, Black Lives Matter, and mass incarceration. And the nonprofit group Faith in Florida has created an online toolkit with books, videos, and other resources about Black history. The curriculum includes the study of dozens of resources, including books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” and Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow”; documentaries like Ava DuVernay’s “13th” and CBS News’ “Trayvon Martin: 10 Years Later”; and also recommends visits to national and local museums on Black history and culture across the country.

Two girls look out the window of a Freedom School. Photo credit: Ken Thompson, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries
Two girls look out the window of a Freedom School. Photo credit: Ken Thompson, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries

“Faith in Florida realized that we were given a bag of lemons; we’ve taken those lemons and now turned them into lemonade,” Rev. Rhonda Thomas, Faith in Florida executive director, said in a video statement from the organization’s website. “We are organizing faith leaders across the state, and even those out-of-state have joined us where we would teach African-American history from our congregations.”

The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), founded by historian Carter G. Woodson, who created Black History Month precursor Negro History Week, has opened Freedom Schools, which emerged during the civil rights movement in Black Southern communities.

ASALH branches in Florida have opened Freedom Schools that operate on weekends, Zebulon Vance Miletsky, associate professor of Africana Studies at Stony Brook University and ASALH head of marketing, explained to Our Time Press.

“They’re independent; they are going back to a Jim Crow playbook,” Miletsky said, explaining Freedom Schools are not subject to the mandates of the Florida Department of Education.

“We have to dip back to our own playbook in terms of strategy and movement and organizing tactics,” Miletsky said. “Some of the legislation that’s been passed is an effort to invalidate all the work that’s been done on Black History. It’s really like Black American history has been outlawed.”

Miletsky teaches recent civil rights history, including Black power, urban history, mixed-race and biracial identity and hip-hop studies. Has has some optimism for the next generation.

“The generation that came through already took all the Black Studies courses,” he explained. “They were out there marching for George Floyd and saying Black Lives Matter. White and Black students were at the rallies and marches in solidarity. Our only hope is to affect the next generation.”

The original version of this story appeared here on the Our Time Press site.

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