WORKSHOP: Black Student Protest as the Language and Blueprint of Education

“Before I’ll Be a Slave, I’ll Be Buried in My Grave”: Histories and Futures of African American Literacy, Schooling & Life

The young protester's sign reads: "I have lost four years of 'education.' 'Why five?'  ('Let's tell Russia about this')."  These young black students were protesting the school closings that resulted from mandated integration in Prince Edward County.

These young black students were protesting the school closings that resulted from mandated integration in Prince Edward County.

This interactive workshop attempts to chronicle and embody the histories of black student protests.  As a community workshop, it specifically asks young people to see how and why young black people have always been at the vanguard of re-imagining and re-shaping America’s schools.  Click on titles below to see the details of the full module.

Module I: “Before I’ll Be a Slave, I’ll Be Buried in My Grave”: 1920s Black Student Protest and Fisk UniversityIn 1917, there were 2132 black students enrolled at the HBCUs; in 1927, there were 13,580 and these greater numbers brought with them greater demands for social justice. 1917-1927 represents a period of black student protest that ultimately reshaped black students’ college experiences in the early 20th century. Much of the student protest in the 1920s was in response to strict dress and behavior codes. Colleges made these rules because the whites in control thought that blacks could needed rules to overcome their savagery. Needless to say, black students were enraged and had a host of black political figures, ideas, and movements on their side: the demands of black soldiers returning home from WWI, the Marcus Garvey Movement and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the Harlem Renaissance, new voting trends (one out of four Harlem voters chose the Socialist ticket in the 1920 elections), new black businesses and institutions such as the NAACP and Urban League, and a new black press (featuring publications like African Times and Orient Review, Messenger, Negro World, Crusader, Negro Voice, Challenge, and Crisis.) Black College students had an important political presence in the 1920s and came to function as one of the most significant aspects of what was then called the New Negro Movement, also known as the Harlem Renaissance. In fact, scholars have argued that black college students actually considered themselves THE NEW NEGROES. In this module, we look closely at student protests at Fisk University. Click here for related videos.

Module II: Freedomways: The Black Freedom Movement with SNYC (1930s-1940s)SNYC was the Southern Negro Youth Congress, led by Esther and James Jackson, that we will think of as the glue that binds 1920s and 1950s black student activism together.  SNYC was established in 1937 at a conference of over 500 delegates in Richmond, Virginia against the backdrop of two national crises: 1) the Scottsboro Case where nine African American boys on a freight car were accused of raping a white woman who happened to be in the train several cars away; and 2) a white mob attack that had taken the lives of 70 African Americans in Birmingham, Alabama when a tubercular youth was sentenced to life imprisonment for shooting three white women though he was in a hospital bed at the time. In 1935, many black students had attended the meeting that led to the National Negro Congress.  However, the students felt they needed an organization that represented them and so, SNYC came to represent students from almost all of the black colleges in the country.  In this module, we look closely at SNYC, especially Freedomways, and how they bound together 1920s and 1950s-1960s activists. Click here for related videos.

Module III: Barbara Rose Johns Powell and the Students of Prince Edward County (1950s)On April 23, 1951, Barbara Johns, a sixteen year old high school student, gave a landmark speech at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia. She called for a strike protesting the conditions of the all-black school where she took classes in tar paper shacks. Johns and her fellow students then held a school strike, marched into the superintendent’s office, and demanded a better school. The NAACP heard of the students’ cause, provided support, and ultimately added the Farmville case to their challenge against Jim Crow with Brown v Board of Education.  In this module, we look closely at 12 years of black student activism in Farmville, Virginia.  Click here for related videos.

Module IV: “The Black Campus Movement”: Black College Students Reinvent U.S. CollegesWhether we are talking about the presence of black faculty and black students on college campuses, or the office of multicultural affairs or diversity initiatives, or a curriculum that includes non-white people’s histories and perspectives, all of it has its origins in the black student protests of the 1960s and 1970s. In this module, we look at how today’s colleges and universities were shaped by black college students’ imaginations and politics. We follow the phrasing coined by Dr. Ibram Rogers— THE BLACK CAMPUS MOVEMENT— and see who and where we are now. Click here for related videos.