Halifax Black community creates first Freedom School; graduates 25


‘MUM, I FOUND MY PEOPLE’ exclaimed one young man at the end of the first African Nova Scotian Freedom School last summer. Rachel Zellars and Wendie Wilson wanted nothing better.

The Freedom School was their brainchild. Zellars is an African-American academic, lawyer, and community organizer. Wilson is an African Nova Scotian teacher, artist, writer, and Black-community activist. They didn’t know each other when Zellars phoned Wilson to suggest setting up a Freedom School in Halifax.

The rise of Black Lives Matter and the overall heightened public concern about racism convinced Zellers the time was right for a Freedom School in Halifax. Wilson instantly agreed.

Freedom School deja vu

Freedom schools were first created during the days of intense civil rights activism in the 60s. They were safe spaces for Black children and youths where Black grassroots activists and educators replaced the myth of Black inferiority with the truth of Black resilience, achievement and the power of community solidarity.

One dark irony of the civil rights movement is that freedom schools had to be created to fill a gap left by integration. When white domination denied Black people any education at all Black communities rallied to provide it with their own Black educators and community schools. All of that died away when schools were integrated. Freedom Schools were created to retrieve all that history, self-reliance and self-confidence.

The call from Zellars prompted Wilson to call together eight other African Nova Scotian educators and activists to work on the Freedom School idea. Zellars brought a sample lesson plan, and the others adapted it to make it specific to the African Nova Scotian context. They decided the school would offer two two-hour sessions each week during August, held online in this year of COVID-19.

The first week focused on policing issues and the movement to defund the police. The second week was about African Nova Scotian history and culture. The third week was about leadership. And the final week was about activism.

Time to ‘listen and be led’

Zellars says she was determined to “take a back seat” and check any tendency to assume authority because of her professional training as an academic and lawyer. “It was a matter of learning when to shut up, listen and be led,” she says. This approach became the guiding principle for the whole project.

“Freedom schools are places where we acknowledge the wholeness of our people; where we say ‘all of us or none of us’,” says Zellars.

“Freedom schools prepare Black children to be leaders,” says Zellars. Children learn that just being Black and alive creates a personal responsibility. “You owe back because you are alive,” she says. “Your very existence has to honour those who came before you.”

Zellars says another key element in the school was the intimacy it demanded and the strength that grew out of it. “See how we work collectively, that we work together, that we plan together, struggle together, that we didn’t give up on one another, holding and sharing power together.”

There is no question of how important a Black teacher can be for Black kids, says Wilson. “We know from research that if you have just one teacher who looks like you by the fifth grade, you are likely to graduate from high school.”

Stopped in their tracks

Wilson says: “I wanted our young people to be stopped in their tracks and start a conversation internally and then hopefully in ways that would ripple out in their families, communities and friendships about issues like defund the police and how black lives do matter.”

All concerned agree that is exactly what nine Black educators and a couple dozen mums and dads did last summer when the very first African Nova Scotian Freedom School graduated its first class of 25 students on August 28.

Wilson and Zellars plan to stay connected with the participants and to host another freedom school next year. It’s all part of a grand plan to eventually open an Africentric school in Nova Scotia.

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