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Renowned journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones creates “1619 freedom school” program in hometown

by Erika DuBose
1619 project nikole hannah jones freedom school
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Students from underserved elementary schools in Iowa are about to be educated on racism and history. The 1619 Freedom School is a daily after school program, with a focus on teaching students from marginalized communities about the history of racism in the United States, along with empowering the young people to create political, economic, and social change.

The program aims to promote literacy to students at low-income schools in the Waterloo, Iowa, area. Waterloo is known across the country as the worst community in America for Black citizens. 

“It’s not enough to succeed if your community is struggling. You have to try to pull people up with you,” said Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Renowned Black journalist creates literacy program in hometown

Known for her work in the New York Times, Hannah-Jones faced national praise and backlash after the New York Times published the “1619 project”, an ongoing project that honors the 400 year anniversary of U.S. chattel slavery by centering our national historical narrative around the slave trade.



“I am so proud to announce the launch of the 1619 Freedom School in my hometown of Waterloo, Iowa, labeled in 2018 the worst place in the U.S. to be Black,” she said. 

The announcement comes after White conservatives in North Carolina tried to block her from becoming a tenured professor at the University of North Carolina.

Hannah-Jones seeks to bridge racial literacy gap in schools

Objecting to her involvement in the 1619 project, opposition to her tenure appointment grew to a fever pitch. Yet, even after the school eventually approved tenure amidst protests, Hannah-Jones instead chose to teach at Howard University, where she will be respected with her own program.

While Waterloo is home to the highest proportion of African-Americans in Iowa, the inequities between Black people and White people are stark.

According to a report by 24/7 Wall Street, “No U.S. metro area has larger social and economic disparities along racial lines than Waterloo-Cedar Falls, Iowa. Black metro area residents earn just 46.8% of what White area residents earn…the city’s Black unemployment rate is 23.9%, well above the 13.3% nationwide black unemployment rate and the second-highest such figure of any U.S. metro.

Meanwhile, the area’s White unemployment rate stands at 4.4%, below the 5.9% national White unemployment rate and among the least of any city nationwide, the report added. 

These disparities hit young children the hardest, limiting opportunities for education and social mobility. At the 1619 Freedom School, students will be treated with the respect they deserve, and provided with opportunities to learn about United States history through the lens of the Black experience, from chattel slavery to police brutality today.



Empowering the next generation

As far as why the 1619 Freedom School was started, the program notes that in Waterloo, “the average Black student in Waterloo public schools is more than two grade levels behind the average White student.

Despite a gaping achievement gap, like most school districts in the nation, the Waterloo Community School District ends most literacy instruction after the third grade even though literacy experts say that students  — especially those academically behind — continue to need literacy instruction as they progress to the upper grades.”

Through literacy instruction, reading, and writing, young students in the program will learn their history, taking pride in the advancements of Black community members for the last 400 years. 

The program is partnered with Georgetown University and the University of Missouri to provide a comprehensive curriculum that empowers students to soak up the information their home schools may skip.

The program is free for all students, and will include open-source material for educators and students across the country to utilize. 

Sheritta Stokes is co-director of the program and has been a teacher in the district for nearly 20 years.

“We’re going to change all the thoughts about education and reading with the young students we work with,” she recently told Black News Channel.

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