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The Vital History of Newtown’s Freedom Schools

In 1954, with its decision in Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka, the US Supreme Court outlawed “separate but equal” schools segregated by race. However, the actual desegregation process in places like Sarasota has dragged on for more than a decade. It was a turbulent time when Black parents, students, and community leaders forced change through civil disobedience that included a school boycott and the creation of what became known as Freedom Schools.

“Sarasota has been slow to get everything done,” says Vickie Oldham, a journalist, historian and president and chief executive officer of the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition. “Leaders have always dragged. It’s always been a push and a fight for equality. Nothing has come easy for black people in Sarasota. Nothing.”

Sarasota’s first steps toward desegregation occurred in 1962, when the previously all-white Bay Haven Elementary School admitted 29 black students in response to a federal lawsuit filed by the NAACP. Over the next few years, more local schools were desegregated. But in doing so, school leaders forced black students in communities like Newtown to travel to distant white schools rather than taking white students to predominantly black schools. When black students arrived on their new campuses, they were often treated with hostility and made to feel unwelcome.

Sherill Martin was in 10th grade in 1969. She attended Sarasota High School, a school she hated because she often found herself the only black student in her class. An honors student, she recalls that her teachers discriminated against her and told her mother that she was failing, even though she did all the homework and passed all the tests.

“I always remember when I was in a geometry class,” says Martin, now 69. “I sat down with the other black students and the teacher was angry and he told us we had to break our ‘sewing circle.’ So I said that if he saw the needle and thread, the “sewing circle” would break. He kicked me out and sent a letter home saying I was failing the course. He assumed that black parents didn’t pay attention to their students’ education, but my parents did. My mom knew I wasn’t failing because she was always checking my work.”

As black students began to be bussed to predominantly white schools, local leaders closed Booker High School and then, in 1969, announced plans to close nearby Amaryllis Park Elementary School. In protest of the move, 2,353 black students — a full 85 percent of the county’s black student body — boycotted the school and began attending classes at local black churches, where community leaders and New College of Florida students they held lessons. The makeshift classrooms were known as Freedom Schools.

Oldham says churches were a natural foundation for schools because they were “a cornerstone of the community for many”, with dinners, lectures, social activities, holiday programs and events for young men and women.

Janie Paulk served as superintendent of Freedom Schools, while James Logan ran them, something like a principal. Many people who are currently known as leaders in Sarasota’s black community — people like former Sarasota City Commissioner Fredd Atkins, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Walter Gilbert, and community activist longtime Sheila Sanders – were students and activists at Freedom Schools.

Doris Mays, 69, attended a Freedom School and remembers her experience vividly.

“There was so much prejudice at the time, and it was shown openly why nobody cared,” says Mays, who grew up on public housing in Newtown. She remembers going to Sarasota Junior High School and feeling like the teachers, staff, and other students hated her and the other black students. She says that when she got to school in the morning, staff members would force her and other students who applied for the free lunch program to clean the tables in the cafeteria before the other students ate.

Mays’ mother, a community activist who spearheaded the creation of a group called the Cheerful Workers known for taking children to nursing homes to help the elderly, decided to pull Mays out of school as part of the boycott. Mays began attending Freedom Schools at Greater Hearst Chapel and New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church.

Martin also joined the boycott. He dropped out of Sarasota High to attend Freedom School in New Bethel. His experience has been positive. She says she was able to attend the school with other students she knew and that the New College students who acted as teachers made sure she didn’t fall behind in her education.

“They kept us updated on our resume,” he says.

Freedom Schools only lasted a few weeks. The students were sent back to school after the Sarasota superintendent threatened to fine and jail their parents. But the school system agreed to keep Amaryllis Park Elementary open, and Booker High reopened in 1970.

Freedom Schools’ legacy remains vital. Manasota ASALH, a nonprofit that works to research and disseminate information about black history, recently launched a new Freedom School program held every Saturday at the Betty J. Johnson North Sarasota Public Library. The curriculum covers topics such as African history, slavery, emancipation, and “the contributions of African Americans to the foundation of American wealth, power, and global standing.”

According to a document announcing the creation of the Manasota ASALH Freedom School program, it was formed in response to new state laws and rules making it more difficult to teach black history in public school classrooms. Its creation also follows a state decision, supported by Governor Ron DeSantis, to prevent Florida students from being able to take an AP course in African-American studies.

“We think it’s important that students understand that Africa is the beginning of our history and of all humanity,” says David Wilkins, president of ASALH in Manasota. “As long as we are threatened by the governor erasing our history, we will find a way to teach it. Our people, even during slavery, have found a way to teach ourselves and our children.”

To learn more about the Manasota ASALH Freedom School program or register, click here.

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