As written By Cooper Levey-Baker
In late 2022, faced with new state laws limiting the teaching of topics like race in public school classrooms, members of the Manasota chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) gathered together and decided that if the state wasn’t going to teach Black history, they would. The result was Freedom School, a series of free lessons on African and African American history for students in grades K-12 that launched last February and then was renewed and expanded last fall.
“We’ve got this anti-intellectual movement that would rather we just tell the Great Man and sometimes Great Woman view of history and leave out important truths,” says Manasota ASALH president David Wilkins. He calls the state’s “Stop W.O.K.E. Act,” which restricts discussions of race and other topics in schools, and decisions like the one to reject an Advanced Placement course on Black history, “clearly an attack on the importance of our story” by people “who don’t want the truth told.”
Since retiring to the Sarasota area after a long career as an attorney for the multinational Dow corporation, Wilkins, now 71, has devoted much of his time to elevating Black history. He joined ASALH shortly after moving here and has taught classes on American slavery and Reconstruction at Booker High School and Ringling College of Art and Design’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. In a way, he’s also trying to give young people in Southwest Florida an immersion in Black history that he himself did not receive. He grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, where he was often one of only a handful of nonwhite students, and while he says he received an excellent education, African American history was largely glossed over.
“It was pretty light,” he says of the curriculum. While in college at Illinois Wesleyan University, however, Wilkins delved into what he calls a “fuller telling of the American story,” and became interested in activism and Black history. He majored in history before deciding to go to law school.
The first Freedom School sessions were put together on the fly (Wilkins describes last spring’s classes as a “pilot”), but still managed to attract between 18 and 40 students each week. The program attracted donors from local foundations, whose gifts paid the teachers for their time, and a $200,000 donation from the Marilyn G. Harwell Fund at the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, bolstered by another $25,000 from the foundation, helped the program expand last fall. The lessons started at the Betty J. Johnson North Sarasota Public Library, but are now hosted by Girls Inc. Students of all ages are welcome, and do not need to enroll for the entire series; they can drop in for individual sessions whenever they like. The idea is to make the program as accessible for children and their parents as possible.
Ideally, Wilkins says, Freedom School wouldn’t need to exist. He points out that the state has a statute on the books that requires the teaching of African American history. But, he says, “Tallahassee has put the fear of God” into teachers, who are now wary of wading into controversy. “My first choice is that Sarasota schools and Manatee schools follow the law and teach African and African American history like we teach American history, because they’re the same,” he says. “There will be a day when this won’t be an issue.”
Until then, we have Freedom School.