Freedom Schools

Freedom Schools served as alternative schools that children could attend during school boycotts. Teachers, clergy, parents, and others ran Freedom Schools, which offered children a curriculum that emphasized African American history and activism. Milwaukee held Freedom Schools during school boycotts on three different dates in 1964 and 1965. During those years, Freedom Schools were also held in other parts of the country, most famously in Mississippi.

In 1964, the Milwaukee United School Integration Committee (MUSIC) began a series of school boycotts in Milwaukee to protest the racial segregation that existed in public schools. Public schools in the central city, in particular, had predominantly black enrollments. In 1964, Lloyd Barbee, the head of MUSIC, issued a deadline to the school board, warning that if the school board failed to begin making efforts to integrate schools and end intact bussing, MUSIC would begin to engage in direct action protests, which would include vigils, sit-ins, chain-ins, and boycotts. The first MUSIC-sponsored school boycott took place on May 18, 1964. The following year another boycott was held, and in 1966, the final MUSIC-sponsored boycott was held at North Division High School. During each boycott, Freedom Schools offered an alternative curriculum for children. Freedom School attendance steadily declined across all three boycotts.

Several North Side churches and community centers opened their doors for Freedom Schools. Large, brightly-lettered signs on the doors of local churches identified the buildings as Freedom Schools. Inside, teachers referred to the schools by special names, such as the “JFK School,” the “Martin Luther King School,” the “Marian Anderson School,” the “James Baldwin School,” and the “Crispus Attucks School.” All of the usual academic subjects were taught but four concepts–freedom, brotherhood, justice, and equality–were particularly highlighted. Freedom School curriculum also included black history, essay writing, and discussions about freedom.

Many local members of the community supported and participated in the functioning of Freedom Schools. The mothers of boycotting students served as crossing guards, chauffeurs, cooks, and teachers. Many of the volunteer instructors were public school teachers or instructors or students from Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Local businessmen, retired teachers, clergymen, doctors, lawyers, and other professional people also taught Freedom School classes. Alderwoman Vel Phillips and her husband, attorney Dale Phillips, were also among those teaching Freedom School classes. EM