Oh, Freedom!

With its roots in the civil-rights movement, a summer program seeks to help black children reimagine their futures.

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Though it's the kind of steamy July day that's more conducive to swimming than studying, the dozen African-American teenagers gathered in a circle at Clio Elementary and Middle School don't seem to mind as they engage in an intense discussion of Hero for Democracy, a biography of Nelson Mandela.

They begin by analyzing the qualities of a good leader, using the biography as a jumping-off point.

"A good leader has to be trustworthy," one student says. "If you tell him something in confidence, he won't tell other people." Another pipes in that "a good leader needs to be a good role model."

The teens also decide that a good leader needs to be able to give instructions as well as listen. "A leader can't just tell his followers what to do," says 14-year-old Deon O'Neil. "He has to show them what to do."

Brooksie Harrington, an English professor at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, prods the students to use the book to back up their assertions. "Let's go through the text and see whether Mandela happened to be a good leader, whether he had flaws, whether he was consistent."

At the end of class, Gary Cain, a student at South Carolina State University who grew up in Marlboro County, urges the teens to think of themselves as leaders. "I challenge you--because you are all so positive and so inspiring--to understand when you go back to school that you are a leader, and you have to set an example for the younger children. You owe it to your brothers and sisters."

He also tells the students how important they are to him. "You are the reason why I want to come home to Marlboro County when a lot of people want to leave," he says simply.

Roots in the Past

This summer, the Clio school played host to one of six local "Freedom Schools" that drew their inspiration--and their name--from the schools organized by civil-rights activists in Mississippi during the "Freedom Summer" voter-registration campaign of 1964. That fateful summer, volunteers organized classes in churches, homes, and community centers to teach youngsters lessons in black history, reading, writing, and mathematics.

Staffed largely by black college students, today's Freedom Schools offer academic instruction in the mornings and enrichment activities, from music to soccer to chess, in the afternoon. They also sponsor field trips, community-service projects, and parent seminars during the five to eight weeks they run.

The schools are one component of the Black Community Crusade for Children, an initiative launched five years ago by two dozen prominent black policymakers, scholars, and activists. Operated by the Children's Defense Fund, the crusade aims to "reweave the rich fabric of community," says Angela Glover Blackwell, a vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation who advises the effort.

"We are making every effort to mobilize strength within the African-American community to save children, believing that government can't do it all, and philanthropy can't do it all," explains Donald M. Stewart, the president of the College Board and a crusade official. "There have to be resources within the community that bring back all the resources we knew as children: strong families, strong churches, and that strong sense of community, so much of which has been destroyed today."

To that end, the crusade runs such programs as public-awareness campaigns, an effort to strengthen youth ministries in churches, and national and community anti-violence initiatives. The two-year-old Freedom Schools now serve 2,000 children in grades K-12 at nearly a dozen sites, including Washington, Philadelphia, and Oakland, Calif.

"Over the long haul," says Lisa Sullivan, a field director for the cdf, "we hope the college students come out of this with a long-term commitment to be effective child advocates in their local communities, and to be actively engaged in their community around problem-solving."

No Place Like Home

Marlboro County was home to the first Freedom School two years ago and this summer had six sites serving 600 children. Bennettsville, the county seat, has a special connection to the Children's Defense Fund: It is the town where CDF founder Marion Wright Edelman grew up, and she and her family have strong ties there.

On this Monday morning in late July, children at the Clio school are gearing up for the last week of the program, which will include a chess tournament, a family day, and a musical performance. Already sticky outside, even at 8 a.m., it is refreshingly cool in the air-conditioned cafeteria, where 100 children are getting ready to begin the day with their morning meeting, called Harambee, the Swahili word meaning "call to unity."

The cafeteria echoes with chatter and laughter as the students clear away their breakfast dishes. But all Willie Mae Cain, a lead teacher at the school, has to do is raise her hand in the air and the room is suddenly still.

After reciting the pledge of allegiance and observing a moment of silence, the children sing a song and settle in for story time. Each day, a member of the community comes to Harambee to read a story to the children. Today's visitor is Willie Mae's son Gary, an electrical-engineering major.

Cain reads a familiar tale with a twist: the Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig. Afterward, he answers questions. "What's your major?" one child asks. "Was Mrs. Cain strict with you?" asks another. "She was strict, but it all worked out for the better," Cain replies with a smile. "Whatever she tells you, you had better listen because she's only in it for your best interest and a brighter future for you."

The Clio school is just a few miles down the road from the Bennettsville offices of the CDF Education and Youth Development Project, which coordinates the six area Freedom Schools.

The project is based in the cozy white clapboard home where Edelman grew up in the 1940s and '50s. Next door is the red-brick Shiloh Baptist Church, where her father was once pastor. After Edelman's mother died in the late 1980s, she decided to turn her childhood home over to the cdf. It seemed a fitting tribute to her mother, a devoted community member who took in foster children and ran a home for elderly residents.

Located near the border of North and South Carolina, Marlboro County has a population of nearly 30,000 that is about 50 percent black and 50 percent white. It's a place where poverty and low levels of schooling are common. The per-capita income is just $11,924, $4,288 below the state average. Some 83 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches at school. And 45 percent of county residents have less than a high school education, while only 10 percent have college or graduate degrees.

And there isn't much for children to do in Bennettsville. There's no movie theater, no recreation center, no bowling alley. The only pool is at a predominantly white country club, leaving black children essentially no place to swim.

Books Are Central

It's no surprise, then, that college does not seem to be a reality for many area children. One way the Freedom Schools hope to open doors to higher education is by cultivating a love of reading. Books "are terribly, terribly central to what we all do here," observes Olive Covington, the retired director of the local CDF office and Edelman's sister. "They're how you educate yourself if everything breaks down."

Each week, the students read at least one book, which they can take home with them. Many are about distinguished black leaders, such as Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story, a biography of a young black man from Detroit who grew up to become the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. "They see that books can take them a lot of places that maybe they have never thought of going," says Marion David, who now directs the local CDF office.

While parents welcomed the program's emphasis on reading, one challenge remained. Although there are plenty of places to rent videotapes in Bennettsville, it's 20 miles to the nearest good-sized bookstore. "Parents asked us, 'Where can we get books like these for our children?"' says David. So CDF staff members opened a bookstore in their office that sells biographies like the ones the children are assigned, as well as storybooks and how-to books.

About 40 of the 50 college interns in the county grew up in the area, and many say that getting involved in the Freedom Schools has strength~ened their desire to return after graduation.

"I like the idea of coming back to my community," says Kimberly N. Simmons, a sophomore education major at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C. "It lets the children see college students who grew up here, where they've gone, and what they are going to be doing," says Simmons, who taught at the Bennettsville Freedom School.

To qualify for the program, the interns must have at least a 2.5 grade-point average, and previous community-service experience is desirable. In exchange for their long hours of service, they receive a $1,500 stipend and free room and board with local families, if needed. While the program attracts a fair number of education majors, it draws students from many other fields as well. One is Cedric Harrison, a computer-information-systems major and a senior at Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C.

"I enjoy the personal relationships I've developed with the children as well as seeing how they developed," Harrison says as he finishes a few lunchtime rounds of chess with some children at the Wallace Freedom School. "Just seeing them grow and change helps me learn about myself and my own development."

But supporters lament that the Freedom Schools often work alone. "It is frustrating to know that the summer experience cannot overcome all that is often lacking in the school year," says Blackwell of the Rockefeller Foundation. "Schools sometimes don't have the money to attract this kind of supplemental support for all kids, or the kind of commitment to educating all children that it will take in order for them to thrive."

But she believes programs like the Freedom Schools can do much to pave the way for change. "It connects multiple generations: It connects the younger children with young adults, and it connects the young adults with older people who have had a lifelong commitment to improve quality of life for all," she observes."Being part of it lets the young college-age people know that the effort to improve the quality of life in the African-American community is not dead; it is very much alive. And not only is it alive, they are very much a part of it."

Vol. 15, Issue 01, Pages 37-38

Published in Print: September 6, 1995, as Oh, Freedom!
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