Exploring the History of Freedom Schools



“Education should enable children to possess their own lives instead of living at the mercy of others.” —Charlie Cobb Jr.

The Freedom Schools of the 1960s were part of a long line of efforts to liberate people from oppression using the tool of popular education, including secret schools in the 18th and 19th centuries for enslaved Africans; labor schools during the early 20th century; the Citizenship Schools formed by Septima Clark and others in the 1950s.

The Freedom Schools of the 1960s were first developed by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi. They were intended to counter the “sharecropper education” received by so many African Americans and poor whites. Through reading, writing, arithmetic, history, and civics, participants received a progressive curriculum during a six-week summer program that was designed to prepare disenfranchised African Americans to become active political actors on their own behalf (as voters, elected officials, organizers, etc.). Nearly 40 freedom schools were established serving close to 2,500 students, including parents and grandparents.

An exploration of Freedom Schools allows students and teachers today to explore the purpose and possibilities of public education today.

The study of Freedom Schools should take place in the context of the long struggle for freedom, voting rights, and quality education in the the United States as a whole. 

Photo by Herbert Randall.

Student Dorothy Duncan writes at a desk in the Freedom School at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Hattiesburg. Photo by Herbert Randall.

Here are some primary documents that can be used in a jigsaw format to introduce the history and philosophy of Freedom Schools. The readings allow students to take on the role of historians, combing through primary documents from the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Schools. The lesson is inquiry-based, hands-on, and engages students in critical reflection. Therefore, students learn about Freedom Schools not only from the readings, but they also experience the pedagogy.

We have provided the documents so that they can be accessed directly online by students with computers or downloaded (PDF) and copied for in class use. For background reading by the teacher before introducing the lesson, we recommend the article Freedom’s Struggle and Freedom Schools by Charles Cobb Jr. and the website, Education and Democracy which offers an extensive archive of the Freedom School curriculum. 

1. Begin by telling students they will be learning about Freedom Schools established in the 1960’s to counter the “sharecropper education” received by so many African Americans and poor whites. If time permits, you can use a gallery walk to give students some background information.

2. Have students read their corresponding handout in groups of 6-10 depending on how many students you have. Make sure each student has one primary document to read. Once they have read their primary document, students should work together to answer their expert group questions.

3. Once students have answered questions in expert groups, have them count off by four. Students then reconfigure themselves into jigsaw groups consisting of at least one student from each expert group. 

4. Once in jigsaw groups, experts from each group take turns teaching their specialty to their jigsaw group so that each student learns about every topic. Students then work together to answer the following discussion questions.

If you could infuse parts of the Freedom School philosophy into your school today, which aspects of each group (curriculum, origins/purpose, teachers, and students) would you want to include?

Use the following questions to guide your discussion: How do people learn? What is the best environment for learning? What is the meaning of education? What is the purpose of school? What should be the role of teachers? What role do students play in schools? Who should decide what is included in the curriculum?

5. Have students share their ideas with the class to develop a broader vision for how aspects of the Freedom Schools could be infused in schools today. 

This lesson was piloted in a seminar for teachers in McComb, Mississippi. Read about the full two-day seminar here to find other recommended activities to use before and after this lesson.

We look forward to hearing how you use them in your classroom. Please let us know.

Origins of Freedom Schools Group

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Student Writings and Experiences

 Impact and Outcomes



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Who They Were

Teacher Preparation

Risks and Rewards


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