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Awakening St. Louis to history of racism

Freedom School participants sit in a circle
Photo: Caylee Dodson / AFSC

AFSC held its first St. Louis Freedom School in the weeks after Mike Brown was killed. Joshua Saleem, program director, explains how a structural analysis of racism can help the community heal:

In 1847, the state of Missouri made it illegal for African-Americans, enslaved or free, to learn how to read. “No person shall keep or teach any school for the instruction of negroes or mulattoes, in reading or writing, in this State,” the Missouri Legislature declared. In response, former slave John Merry Beacham established a “School for Freedom” in the middle of the Mississippi River. The river, technically federal property, allowed students to learn despite Missouri’s racist law. To reach this freedom school, they had to travel by row boat from St. Louis.

One hundred and seventy years later, St. Louis is again in need of a freedom school.

In the wake of Mike Brown’s shooting and subsequent protests, many across the country are interested in helping the local Ferguson community heal. Some have offered afterschool programs, employment opportunities, and food drives for residents. These efforts are noble, but the community also needs real healing and lasting peace.

Also in the wake of the Mike Brown shooting and subsequent protests, the history of institutional racism in Ferguson and the St. Louis area has been exposed. These systems and structures are at the root of inequality and injustice in the St. Louis community. A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute put it this way:

This story of racial isolation and disadvantage, enforced by federal, state, and local policies, many of which are no longer practiced, is central to an appreciation of what occurred in Ferguson in August 2014 when African-American protests turned violent after police shot and killed an unarmed black 18-year-old. Policies that are no longer in effect and seemingly have been reformed still cast a long shadow.

It is only by addressing these deeper systemic issues that we will see lasting peace in Ferguson. That is why AFSC’s St. Louis Freedom School is so important today.

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