K-12 youth learn African American history through Manasota ASALH Freedom School
Betty J. Johnson Public Library, where Manasota ASALH Freedom School is held. Photo courtesy of Betty J. Johnson Public Library.

K-12 youth learn African American history through Manasota ASALH Freedom School

David Wilkins, president of the Manasota Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), has led the recent initiative to sponsor a Sarasota Freedom School. In an email interview, Wilkins told the Catalyst about the history of Freedom Schools, how Sarasota’s school runs and why it is an important addition to the community in the current cultural and political climate.  

“Following the Florida legislature’s passage of the Stop Woke Act and the hostility and confusion engendered by that legislation, the national office of ASALH recommended that local branches like ours institute Freedom Schools to provide opportunities for the teaching of Black history,” Wilkins explained. 

The ASALH was established in 1915 by the founder of Black History Month (BHM) Carter Woodson, who is widely known as the Father of Black History. ASALH’s mission is “to promote, research, preserve, interpret and disseminate information about Black life, history and culture to the global community.” Activities of the ASALH include setting an annual theme for BHM, sponsoring annual Black History kick-off events, hosting an annual convention and BHM luncheon, hosting essay contests for undergraduate and graduate students and commemorating Woodson’s birthday. Woodson was born in Virginia on Dec. 19, 1875. 

Manasota ASALH was founded by Ernestine Harris in 1995 at the Family Heritage House Museum. A Florida native, Harris worked as an educator in New York City schools and moved to Sarasota after retirement. She had been a member of the New Jersey ASALH branch and she recognized that the Manasota area desperately needed a community of individuals willing to actively spotlight and celebrate African American achievements and culture. By January 1996, 20 charter members were officially installed in Manasota ASALH, which originally met in the Selby Library. Harris was elected president of the chapter and served until 2000, with eight more presidents following. Now that torch has been passed to Wilkins, whose Freedom School initiative has touched the lives of Manasota youth. 

Though it began as a 10-week pilot program in February 2023, the Sarasota Freedom School now runs from November to April. Saturday classes for K-12 youth run from 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. at the Betty J. Johnson Public Library in Newtown, and lunch is provided. The final class was held on April 20, but Manasota ASALH board members and the Freedom School’s program directors are currently planning classes and field trips for the summer months. The program is designed to welcome drop-in students, so youth are not required to attend all sessions. 

Wilkins explained that Manasota ASALH’s SarasotaFreedom School, which is referred to by the acronym MAFS, has a curriculum that teaches African and African American history to youth through experiences such as lectures, field trips and presentations by guest speakers. Through the Sarasota Freedom School, ASALH attempts to teach a more accurate history including the contributions and experiences of African Americans in the development of U.S. society. Topics  the Freedom School covers include African History, Emancipation, the Middle Passage and more. 

“Our school is open to all children of all races, and they readily accept the fact that we are all African, descended from the original peoples and civilizations that began in Africa,” Wilkins observed about the program’s effect on students. “Imagine the confidence and respect these young people will bring to their lives, having been grounded in the truth of our universal humanity at such an early age.” 

Wilkins described the Sarasota Freedom School as being fashioned after the Freedom Schools operated during the Civil Rights era. These schools originated in the 1960s and were founded by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during what is known as 1964 Freedom Summer. These schools intended to challenge the sharecropper education that was being taught to African Americans and working-class White people of the time. SNCC sought to increase Black voter registration, build community centers and challenge Mississippi’s all-White political delegation. 

“If you’re familiar with Manasota Remembers, our MAFS students received instruction on racial terror lynchings, including the documented lynchings of Black men in our area,” Wilkins elaborated, referencing the local initiative to memorialize victims of racial violence. “Those MAFS students participated in the community marker dedication ceremony that took place at Sarasota’s Unitarian Universalist Church last month.”

Wilkins also clarified that African and African American history has been and continues to be an education requirement in Florida since 1994, and MAFS is not intending to replace that requirement.

“We are committed to working with the school district to ensure that all children in Manatee and Sarasota receive complete and accurate instruction in American history,” Wilkins concluded. “That is only possible with the accurate and complete telling of the history of peoples of African descent in America.”

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