Freedom Centers, Houses, Schools, and Libraries
While operating in Arkansas, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) established numerous Freedom Centers, Freedom Houses, Freedom Schools, and Freedom Libraries to foster knowledge and self-respect among African Americans. Freedom Houses were living quarters, administrative workspaces, and community meeting spaces for SNCC volunteers and others. Freedom Centers included Freedom Libraries and Freedom School spaces. Freedom Schools were also established in churches, homes, and businesses to counteract unconstitutional educational facilities and a lack of self-awareness and self-acceptance in the African American community.
In October 1962, a new branch of SNCC was established in Little Rock (Pulaski County) with the intention of harnessing the rising tide of Black political consciousness in the South. The branch leader, William (Bill) Hansen, arrived in Little Rock on October 24, 1962, and immediately contacted SNCC leaders at Philander Smith College and Shorter College to set up a strategy session. SNCC created a multifaceted agenda to combat segregation in public facilities and schools, assist African Americans with voter registration, encourage African Americans to become politically informed and engaged, improve educational opportunities for Black Arkansans, ensure that civil rights were protected, and provide more economic opportunities in the poverty-stricken Delta region.
Although a Freedom House had been in operation in Helena (Phillips County) since the previous year, it needed additional support to continue. The plans were to use Helena as a base from which to expand into places such as Marianna (Lee County), Forrest City (St. Francis County), West Memphis (Crittenden County), and Blytheville (Mississippi County). However, white resistance led to a brief early suspension of SNCC activities in Helena. In the fall of 1963, SNCC was forced to leave Helena but returned three months later. Helena would become, along with Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), a focal point of SNCC’s work in eastern Arkansas.
The SNCC staff in Arkansas was integrated, and the organization remained so throughout its duration. The leaders of SNCC’s Arkansas Project understood that knowledge, recognition, and responsibility of self were imperative for African Americans to rise above poverty, economic pressures, political disparities, and a sense of inferiority, especially in those parts of the state where African Americans constituted the majority of the population but remained shut out of local government. Freedom Centers, Houses, Libraries, and Schools appeared throughout the Deep South, reaching the Delta region of Arkansas, to foster this cultural change.
In general, all Freedom Houses and Centers in Arkansas worked to “provide recreational and educational opportunities for children and teenagers,” with topics including “African culture, Negro history, and current events.” The Forrest City Freedom Center was remembered to be located in Clay Funeral Home, an “old, abandoned funeral home with all kinds of rooms; classes, libraries, offices, etc.” Myrtle Glascoe, director of West Helena Freedom Center, focused on providing books and classes, including books by and for African Americans. Nine volunteers worked out of West Helena (Phillips County); Glascoe was one of only two African Americans, and she voiced her concern that the ratio was not suitable to serve the community. The Forrest City Freedom House also operated out of the Clay Funeral Home. A SNCC volunteer named Millard Lowe taught weekly classes in African history, Caribbean history, and African American history, which was called “Ourstory.” Lowe also once used a photo from Africa to show the children of the Freedom House how the injustice and discrimination that were occurring in Forrest City were also happening globally. On several occasions, Arkansas state troopers conducted raids on the Freedom House.
The Mitchellville Freedom House in Mitchellville (Desha County) opened in 1965 and operated similarly to other Arkansas Freedom Houses. However, the Freedom Center in Gould (Lincoln County) was a building owned by a local woman—Carrie Dilworth, a senior citizen who was welcoming to SNCC—who had a large book collection. Laura Foner spent the summer of 1965 renovating the two-story structure with the help of three other SNCC volunteers. The Friends of SNCC also donated 1,500 books; most were new, and all were about African American history. SNCC provided volunteers with a basic curriculum that had been used in Mississippi the previous summer: basic literacy, Black histories, and simple lessons. According to Sanderia Faye, the Gould Freedom Library offered French classes during the summer of 1965. Most importantly, Gould SNCC volunteers would encourage children to share their stories and learn the stories of all kinds of people around the globe. The library was open every day, and everybody could use it.
Like many other sites, the Gould establishment faced pushback from authorities. Although Foner was not arrested, she was once harassed at gunpoint with a violent verbal threat from the sheriff regarding her involvement with SNCC. After a long season of local police depriving citizens of the right to protest, unlawful home invasions, unwarranted arrests, voter fraud, and discriminatory practices of school officials, SNCC requested federal assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). However, in 1966, the Gould Freedom Center was burned. It was believed to have been arson by the Ku Klux Klan.
During the existence of these institutions, each community set its own pattern of compliance and operated in its own capacity with advice and support from SNCC volunteers and community members. However, the movement in Arkansas began to change drastically along with the change in leadership and the philosophy of the SNCC at the national level, with leaders calling for exclusive Black control of the organization. Hansen resigned from his SNCC director and field organizer positions in 1964, citing the need for Black leaders to take over the Arkansas Project.
As SNCC began to dissolve, so, too, did the Freedom Centers, Houses, Schools, and Libraries it had helped to establish. However, the radical politics and the Afrocentric cultural awareness they had worked to foster would be adopted by various Black Power organizations, including the Black United Youth (BUY) in Little Rock. Too, similar institutions would again be established from time to time, as with the short-lived College Station Freedom School in College Station (Pulaski County) in 1970.
For additional information:
“Arkansas.” SNCC Legacy Project. https://sncclegacyproject.org/?s=arkansas (June 14, 2023).
Finley, Randy. “Crossing the White Line: SNCC in Three Delta Towns, 1963–1967.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 65 (Summer 2006): 117–137.
Freedom Summer Digital Collection. Wisconsin Historical Society. https://content.wisconsinhistory.org/digital/collection/p15932coll2?_ga=2.70493200.1441059489.1668446373-583673866.1668446373 (June 14, 2023).
Selby, Mike. Freedom Libraries: The Untold Story of Libraries for African Americans in the South. Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.
Summer 1965: Freedom Summer in Arkansas. Digital SNCC Gateway, SNCC Legacy Project and Duke University. https://snccdigital.org/events/freedom-summer-arkansas/ (June 14, 2023).
Wallach, Jennifer Jensen, and John Kirk, eds. Arsnick: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2011.
Candace L. Owens
Central Arkansas Library System
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