'Freedom School, Yes!'


March 28, 2001|By Amy Littlesugar

* Editor's note: A story based on the volunteers who were part of the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project reveals the dangers and rewards of teaching about African America's rich heritage.

On the first night the Freedom School teacher came to stay in Chicken Creek, a brick burst through the front room window of Jolie's house, shattering the stillness. "Mama." Jolie's heart pounded. "Mama!"

But Mama was already awake. Quietly she rose, so's not to waken Luanne and little Sairy. She ran to see if Annie was safe.

Nineteen-year-old Annie was the Freedom School teacher. She'd never taught school before. Yet she'd come from up north to teach the children of Chicken Creek.

"Lord, child!" Mama cried. "You all right?"

She hugged Annie like she'd never let go.

Jolie went and picked up the brick. A note wrapped around it was scrawled with hate: FREEDOM SCHOOL TEACHER -- GO HOME OR ELSE!!

"Jolie," Mama said in a low voice. "Go get Uncle Shad, y'hear?'

Soon she came to Mount Pleasant Church. Jolie remembered the Sunday Mama'd raised her hand, offering to let a Freedom School teacher come stay with them.

"Praise God!" Reverend Wilkins cried. And Jolie wanted to push Mama's hand right down. No one else raised theirs. No one. Just Mama.

By the time Jolie got to Uncle Shad's tears were streaming down her face.

"Why, Sis!" Uncle Shad exclaimed when he saw Jolie. "You okay? Your ma? Luanne and Sairy?"

"Oh, Uncle Shad!" Jolie cried.

Then she told him all that had happened, and how she wished Annie had never come -- not Freedom School neither.

Uncle Shad leaned both his hands on his walking stick.

"Listen to me, Sis," he said quietly. "This here Freedom School ain't gonna be like no ordinary school. You gonna learn 'bout people and places -- 'bout who you are. Once you learn that, you ain't gonna let bein' scared get in your way."

Next day was Sunday, and Annie was to meet the entire congregation at Mount Pleasant Church -- where Freedom School would be.

"I hope you'll all send your children tomorrow," said Annie.

But Jolie wanted no part in it. She'd gone to sit on the old crate step, behind the orange trumpet vine. She looked up into a velvet sky, at the stars she loved. One day, Jolie imagined, she'd count them all.

Suddenly, though, a deep, bone-rattling sound crashed through Jolie's thoughts like thunder.

"Fire!" someone screamed. "The church is on fire!"

And by dawn it was hard to tell there had ever been a church where the charred and smoking frame now stood.

Mama stood close to Annie and Jolie. Her voice sounded sad and empty.

"Guess there'll be no school tomorrow."

Then Reverend Wilkins did a surprising thing. Reaching his hands out to anyone who'd take them, he began to sing.

And slowly, one by one, all those around Jolie joined in. Church or no church, even Jolie knew, there would be Freedom School tomorrow.

Then, on Tuesday, Reverend Wilkins brought good news. For one dollar -- one dollar -- a neighbor had sold them a small piece of land. In no time they'd have a new church.

"And while we're at it," Reverend Wilkins said with a grin, "a brand-new Freedom School!"

Meanwhile, under that hickory tree with bees buzzing and birds chirping, Annie's class was learning so much, Miss Rosetta said it made her head spin -- Jolie's too.

Then Annie spoke of a free black man from long ago. "Benjamin Banneker was his name," she said. "He was a mathematician, a farmer, but more than anything else, he loved the stars."

By Saturday the church had a new frame. And the school was almost done. Soon it had a roof that reached to the sky, sparkling new windows, and a shiny door opened wide.

Before long it'd be ready for Annie's class. But no chances were taken. Every night someone took a turn guarding the new buildings.

Annie wanted to, only Jolie looked fearful.

"Are you afraid for me?" Annie asked.

Jolie shook her head. But Annie knew different. So she told Jolie about a woman from slavery days who'd risked her life helping hundreds get free.

"Her name was Harriet Tubman," Annie said. "She was brave -- brave as a lion."

Jolie tumbled into Annie's arms and could feel Annie's heart pounding. For the first time she realized how much the school -- and Annie -- meant to her.

FREEDOM SCHOOL, YES! By Amy Littlesugar. Text copyright c 2001 by Amy Littlesugar. Illustrations copyright c 2001 by Floyd Cooper. Republished by arrangement with the publisher, Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved.

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