Teaching Students A New Black History

Feb 25, 2021
Originally published on February 25, 2021 4:34 pm

When you think of the history of Black education in the United States, you might think of Brown vs. Board of Education and the fight to integrate public schools. But there's a parallel history too, of Black people pooling their resources to educate and empower themselves independently.

Enslaved people learned to read and write whenever and wherever they could, often in secret and against the law. "In accomplishing this, I was compelled to resort to various stratagems,"like convincing white children to help him, wrote Frederick Douglass. "I had no regular teacher."

After the Civil War, says educator Kaya Henderson, Black people started "freedmen's schools" to teach former slaves literacy and the other skills they would need to participate as citizens. "In the 12-year period that is Reconstruction," she adds, "we started 5,000 community schools. We started 37 historically black colleges and universities."

A century later, during the civil rights movement, educators founded "freedom schools" combining basic literacy with civic skills, like how to register to vote.

And in 1969, the Black Panther Party started a free breakfast program for schoolchildren. Eventually it fed tens of thousands of hungry kids oranges, eggs and chocolate milk at 45 sites around the country. J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, reportedly got the Chicago police to try to sabotage the program, because he considered it to be such powerful positive messaging for the radical movement he was determined to destroy. Instead, the federal government joined the effort; President Richard M. Nixon increased funding to guarantee all qualifying children a right to free lunch at school.

"We have a tradition of educating ourselves and we've forgotten that," Henderson says.

Now, she's started her own effort, dubbed, as a way of continuing that tradition.

Henderson led the Washington, D.C., public school system from 2010 to 2016. There, she worked to diversify the curriculum to ensure that students had both "windows" on the broader world, but also "mirrors" that reflected themselves. The result? "When those kids saw themselves in the curriculum, they came alive. They felt validated. They saw their communities as worthy and they just operated differently."

But, Henderson says, time is limited in traditional public schools, and she wanted to see what could be done with a voluntary, supplemental program where the teachers and the children were all Black.

"I thought a lot about my friends who went to Hebrew school on the weekends or Chinese school on the weekends" — a place to maybe learn a language, pick up some cultural know-how and affirm a positive identity. "Other ethnic groups don't rely on the government to teach their kids about themselves. Why are we relying on the government to teach black kids about our history, our culture, our heroes and heroines, our folktales?"

Henderson and her leadership team, including her co-founder, Harvard economist Roland Fryer, Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children's Zone, and Kenya Bradshaw of TNTP, started cooking up the idea in late 2019, and intended to launch in early 2021. But the pandemic and its huge disruptions to education, followed by the racial justice upheaval last summer, pushed them to get started this past fall. is a for-profit startup that offers live video classes over Zoom. They range from soul food cooking, to Black feminism, to the tradition of West African griot — oratory and storytelling skills. There's even a class called Black Shakespeare, where readers explore themes like migration and slavery in plays like Othello and The Tempest.

The classes cost $10 for each one-hour Zoom session, typically 10 sessions to a class. They've hired hundreds of tutors and signed up several thousand students so far.

Nia Warren, one of the tutors on the platform, is taking a gap year from Harvard and teaching a literature course. "One of my classes was all Black girls, and that made me so happy because I never had a black female teacher," she said.

When she was growing up, Warren says, she didn't get to see herself reflected in history class, either. "I didn't get to hear a lot about the things that black people did, besides, like, Martin Luther King and these token figures."

Eleven-year-old Zoe Cobb lives in Chicago, where she's going to school remotely. She loved her Reconstruction literature course, "even though it was another Zoom, which i was originally not a big fan of."

She read Ghost Boys, by Jewell Parker Rhodes, about a young boy killed by police, which introduces characters like Emmett Till. Cobb calls it "kind of like a book club filled with kids of color," from all over the country, some of whom have become her friends.

Henderson says Reconstruction was always intended to be an extracurricular program. But with the pandemic pushing so much education online, they've been partnering with school districts, and offering courses free to students, including on math and reading. "We felt like there were ways to take the academic standards and content and bring them alive in a blackity-black way."

For example, in a math class, they ask students to pretend they are running the Black Panthers' free-breakfast program: "Planning for how many chairs you need, how many meals you need. What happens if more kids come or less kids come?" For Henderson's part, she's hoping a lot more kids come to get what they're dishing out.

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A former leader in the D.C. public school system was frustrated. Black history was always confined to Black History Month, which is the shortest month, if you're counting. So she started a new education venture.

Here's NPR's Anya Kamenetz.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: I bet your English class never sounded like this.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Rapping) Y'all haters corny with the lack of diverse texts. Got me reading books, and I can't even represent.

KAMENETZ: With apologies to Beyonce, that's a video trailer for a class called Lit In Formation.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I've read all of those, so please tell me what's next. My favorite, Jason Reynolds, got me some George Johnson.

KAMENETZ: It's just one of the offerings from a new online course platform called Reconstruction.

KAYA HENDERSON: History begins in Africa, right? It begins where we started in the cradle of our civilization and the kingdoms and the universities and the civilizations that happened way before slavery.

KAMENETZ: That's Kaya Henderson. She founded Reconstruction as a startup to give Black kids a space to learn about their history, their culture and identity, kind of like how her Jewish friends growing up had Hebrew school, she said.

HENDERSON: I'll say hipper, cooler Hebrew school for Black kids (laughter).

KAMENETZ: There are live video chat classes on the platform on soul food cooking, Black activists, storytelling skills through West African griot, even a class called Black Shakespeare.

HENDERSON: We are examining the plays through some lens that has to do with African Americans.

KAMENETZ: Henderson used to lead the Washington, D.C., public schools. There she worked to include more black history in the curriculum. She says it's often given short shrift.

HENDERSON: There's a meme on Instagram running around where the teacher literally is, like, so first there was slavery, and then it was civil rights. We're moving right along.

KAMENETZ: For example, when Nia Warren was growing up in New Jersey and attending a mostly white private school...

NIA WARREN: I didn't get to hear a lot about the things that Black people did besides, like, MLK and these kind of token figures.

KAMENETZ: Now Warren is taking a gap year from Harvard and teaching for Reconstruction over Zoom.

WARREN: One of my classes was, like, all Black girls. And that just like made me so happy 'cause I never had, like, a Black, female teacher.

ZOE COBB: I absolutely loved it, even though it was another Zoom, which I was originally not a big fan of.

KAMENETZ: Zoe Cobb is 11 and lives in Chicago, where she's going to school online. She also took the Lit In Formation class this winter.

ZOE: We read the book "Ghost Boys." So it's kind of like a book club with - filled with kids of color.

KAMENETZ: "Ghost Boys" by Jewell Parker Rhodes is about a young boy killed by police.

ZOE: He becomes a ghost. And he meets all these other ghost boys of Black kids who got shot by police officers.

KAMENETZ: Kaya Henderson says Reconstruction is proudly extracurricular. Individual families can sign up for just $10 a class, with usually 10 classes per session. But with the pandemic pushing so much more learning online, they've been partnering with school districts too.

HENDERSON: We felt like there were ways to take the academic standards and content and bring them alive in a Blackity-Black (ph) way.

KAMENETZ: Like in a math class called Cipher, named after the hip-hop practice of standing in a circle and trading verses.


STYLES P: This what it was.

PAPOOSE: The cipher - 360 degrees - the cipher.

KAMENETZ: It's all intended to fulfill Henderson's long term vision for Black kids to be exposed to learning that gives them both windows on the wider world and mirrors to see themselves.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Rapping) I like my books to look like me, mirrors and windows. I can read with...

KAMENETZ: Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Rapping) Earned all these A's, but they never take the reader out me. I got Black books in my bag swag. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.