Civil Rights

The Vital History of Newtown's Freedom Schools

A 1969 student boycott helped save schools in the historic Black neighborhood.

By Jessika Ward February 23, 2023

In 1954, with its decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the United States Supreme Court outlawed "separate but equal" schools segregated by race. However, the actual process of desegregation in places like Sarasota dragged on for more than a decade. It was a turbulent time in which Black parents, students and community leaders forced change through civil disobedience that included a school boycott and the creation of what became known as Freedom Schools.

“Sarasota was slow to do everything," says Vickie Oldham, a journalist, historian and the president and chief executive officer of the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition. "Leaders always dragged. It was always a push and struggle for equality. Nothing was easy for Sarasota’s Blacks. Nothing.”

Sarasota's first steps toward desegregation occurred in 1962, when the previously all-white Bay Haven Elementary School admitted 29 Black students in response to a federal lawsuit filed by the NAACP. In the years afterward, more local schools were desegregated. But in doing so, school leaders forced Black students in communities like Newtown to travel to distant white schools rather than bringing white students into predominantly Black schools. When Black students arrived at their new campuses, they were often treated with hostility and made to feel unwelcome.

Sherill Martin was in 10th grade in 1969. She attended Sarasota High School, a school she hated because she often found herself as the only Black student in class. An honors student, she remembers her teachers discriminating against her and telling her mother she was failing—even though she did all her homework and passed all her tests.

“I always remember when I was in a geometry class," says Martin, now 69. "I sat with the other Black students and the teacher was upset and told us that we needed to break up our 'sewing circle.' So I said if he saw needle and thread, the 'sewing circle' would break up. He kicked me out and sent a letter home saying I was failing the class. He was assuming Black parents didn’t pay attention to their students' education, but my parents did. My mom knew I wasn’t failing because she always checked my work."

As Black students began being bussed to predominantly white schools, local leaders closed Booker High School and then, in 1969, announced plans to close nearby Amaryllis Park Elementary School. To protest the move, 2,353 Black students—a full 85 percent of the county's Black student body—boycotted school and began attending classes at local Black churches, where community leaders and students from New College of Florida led lessons. The makeshift classrooms were known as Freedom Schools.

Oldham says churches were a natural base for the schools because they were "a community cornerstone for many," with dinners, conferences, social activities, holiday programs and events for youth, men and women.

Janie Paulk served as superintendent of the Freedom Schools, while James Logan led them—something like a principal. Many people who are currently known as leaders in Sarasota's Black community—people like former Sarasota City Commissioner Fredd Atkins, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens vice president for diversity and inclusion Walter Gilbert and longtime community activist Sheila Sanders—were students and activists at the Freedom Schools.

Doris Mays, 69, attended a Freedom School and vividly remembers her experience.

“There was so much prejudice back then, and it was shown openly because no one cared," says Mays, who grew up in public housing in Newtown. She remembers going to Sarasota Junior High School and feeling like the teachers, staff and other students hated her and the other Black students. She says that when she arrived at school in the morning, staff members would make her and other students who applied for the free lunch program wipe down tables in the cafeteria before the other students ate.

Mays’ mother, a community activist who spearheaded the creation of a group called the Cheerful Workers that was known for taking kids to nursing homes to help the elderly, decided to pull Mays out of school as part of the boycott. Mays began attending Freedom Schools at Greater Hearst Chapel and New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church.

Martin also joined the boycott. She left Sarasota High to attend the Freedom School at New Bethel. Her experience was positive. She says she was able to attend school with other students she knew, and that the New College students who acted as teachers made sure she didn't fall behind in her education.

“They kept us up on our curriculum,” she says.

The Freedom Schools only lasted a few weeks. Students were sent back to school after Sarasota’s superintendent threatened to fine and jail their parents. But the school system did agree to keep Amaryllis Park Elementary School open, and Booker High was reopened in 1970.

The legacy of the Freedom Schools remains vital. Manasota ASALH, a nonprofit that works to research and disseminate information about Black history, recently launched a new Freedom School program that takes place every Saturday at the Betty J. Johnson North Sarasota Public Library. The curriculum covers topics like African history, enslavement, emancipation and "the contributions of African Americans to the foundation of American wealth, power and global position."

According to a document announcing the creation of the Manasota ASALH Freedom School program, it was formed in response to new state laws and rules that make it more difficult to teach Black history in public school classrooms. Its creation also follows a state decision, supported by Gov. Ron DeSantis, to block Florida students from being able to take an AP course in African American studies.

"We think it is important that students understand Africa is the beginning for our history and all humanity," says Manasota ASALH president David Wilkins. "As long as we are threatened by the governor canceling our history, we are going to find a way to teach it. Our folks, even during enslavement, found a way to teach ourselves and our children."

To learn more about Manasota ASALH's Freedom School program or register for it, click here.

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