Retracing Our Steps: Remembering the 1964 Freedom Schools

This post was written by Khrisma McMurray, a Junior Fellow in the Library’s Informal Learning Office.

How many times have you heard someone ask your child, “What are you doing this summer?”

Some kids spend their days sleeping in or hanging with friends. But during the summer of 1964, over 2,500 Black children in Mississippi spent their summers attending a school unlike any other they had experienced before—Freedom Schools. Freedom Schools were part of the Mississippi Freedom Summer, a collaborative social justice project organized by Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) members including activist Bob Moses, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Many well-known activists of the Civil Rights movement were adults. But in Freedom Schools, youth led other youth in a six-week education and empowerment program.

On the surface, the forty Freedom Schools were created to catch black children up on the education they missed during the school year in schools that were under-resourced and still segregated nearly a decade after the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. But on a deeper level, college-aged SNCC members taught a curriculum celebrating Black History. Students learned through the use of books, music, poetry, dance, theatre and roleplay —as Glenda Funchess shared in an interview with the American Folklife Center’s Civil Rights History Project. In one school, students performed a puppet show featuring as a knight fighting the Wicked Witch of Segregation.

Two groups of young people were positively affected by Freedom Schools—the primary school students in Mississippi and the college-aged SNCC students who flocked to Mississippi as part of Mississippi Freedom Summer. The Library of Congress’s oral history collection contains interviews with young people in both groups that you can explore with your family.

In this oral history, Gwendolyn Simmons shared her experience as a SNCC member—an experience beginning with her grandmother warning her “Don’t ever go to Mississippi. It’s the worst of the worst for black people.” Despite her grandmother’s warning, Gwendolyn journeyed from Tennessee for the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project where she was assigned to a Freedom Schools in Laurel. Check out her interview below:

Timestamps for highlights from Gwendolyn Simmons’ interview:

  • 4:46: How Simmons’ family tried to keep her from being involved
  • 10:48: Why Simmons couldn’t walk away from the Civil Rights Movement
  • 13:00: Simmons’ emotional and mental preparation to go into Mississippi in 1964
  • 31:20: Simmons renovation of a former nightclub to be her Freedom School site
  • 46:00: What Simmons hopes others say about her leadership during the Mississippi Freedom Summer
  • 47:36: Challenges Simmons faced while operating a Freedom School and other events during the Freedom Summer

In 2015, Glenda Funchess shared an oral history of her experience as a Freedom Schools student at her church at Mount Zion in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. She shared how she continues the impact of Freedom Schools in her community.

Timestamps for highlights from Glenda Funchess’ interview:

  • 39:21: Funchess describes how she got enrolled in a Freedom School
  • 40:25: Funchess details the impact of having a Freedom Schools within a church setting
  • 48:39: Funchess shares what it was like being a student in a Freedom School
  • 52:00: Funchess explains how Freedom Schools continued after the Mississippi Summer Project
  • 53:10: Funchess shares how Freedom Schools inspired her to become a Civil Rights Attorney
  • 01:05:30: Funchess discusses how she still contributes to the continuation of Freedom Schools

In college, I followed in the footsteps of Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons and other SNCC members by volunteering in a summer program modelled after the Freedom Schools of 1964. As an African American woman growing up in the 2010s, I found a few facts in my textbooks about Black History, and felt like I had to be a certain age to learn about my own culture. But Library of Congress resources makes it possible for everyone to learn about various cultures, no matter their age or geographic location.

Some resources about the Civil Rights Movement may be of special interest to young children, teens, and families. But these collections include primary sources that may have words or images that may cause discomfort. Remind your children and your family that these words are reflective of the climate and perspectives of the time.

What are you doing this summer? Here are a few places to start:

Family Blog Posts:

Collections and Exhibits

Lesson Plans

Remembering Norman Mineta

This is a guest post by Informal Learning Office’s virtual intern, Eori Tokunaga.  Norman Yoshio Mineta, who passed away earlier this month, had a long and influential history in American politics and was a proponent of restitution for Japanese American families who were incarcerated during World War II. We are celebrating his contributions to this […]