“The purpose of the New School of Afro-American Thought was to challenge the direction of Black educational philosophy and practice in America. It set out to do this by creating a working model of what its founders felt education for Black people should be, rather than what it was at the time. The New School of African American Thought was to be that model.”
– Baba Lumumba (Don Freeman)
Those of us who conceived of and developed the New School of Afro-American Thought felt that what was called Negro education at that time should be carried out in very different ways than what we were getting from institutions like Howard University. We felt that schools that claimed to provide education to Black people should base that education on the need that we had to be free, and not serve only the dictates of the dominant society. We felt at the time that Howard University was failing Black people and had to be challenged.
In 1965, in the middle of what was one of the most turbulent periods of modern Black history, the necessity to prioritize our needs in education was “front-and-center.” We felt that a challenge to the kind of education that we were receiving had to be aggressively launched.
We felt that the contemporary philosophy and practice of Black educational institutions had failed Black people in several important ways:
- It did not sufficiently help us answer our most important identity question: Our understanding of our history before our domination by others.
- It did not provide a broad enough frame of reference to enable its graduates to maximize their effectiveness in the cause of improving our people’s lives by serving their needs.
- It had abandoned the role of reaching out to the most oppressed elements of the Black community and producing out of them trained individuals who would return to those communities and focus their attention and their new skills on their needs.
- Its mission had become simply the training and socializing of middle-class Black youth to fill the employee needs of white businesses.
Our intent was to confront that framework by developing a Black educational model that would challenge what we saw as Howard’s approach: serving white concerns over Black interests and needs.
The Partnership that Created and Sustained the School
The New School, like so many other significant developments in history, started with the collaboration of two individuals with a common outlook on the Black condition and its solution: Gaston Neal and me. We were alike in ways that brought us together but very different in important ways that allowed us to form an effective partnership that resulted in the New School.
I met Gaston Neal in 1964 at a political gathering about the tracking system in the D.C. public schools. We began a discussion that lasted over 40 years. Our mutual interest was always the Black Liberation movement and our common admiration for the position and direction of brother Malcolm X. From the start of our friendship, it seemed that we had a common political and cultural outlook and could work together as a team to make something positive happen in D.C. He was a poet and a public personality from Pittsburgh, Pa., with a penetrating cultural focus that was aimed at the Black community. I was a Howard student who was interested in and involved with the Black Nationalist wing of the Black freedom struggles in Northern California. It was our mutual desire, or perhaps naïve belief that we could effectively improve the lot of Black people in D.C. by working together as a team.
Shortly after our first meeting in 1964, we began working with the legendary local D.C. activist Julius Hobson in an organization called Associated Community Team (ACT). At the time, we felt ACT was the closest effort that shared our political outlook. Mr. Hobson had been a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and had established ACT in part to broaden his scope of political activity to include issues that CORE did not cover. As members of ACT, Gaston and I did things like picket the South African Embassy, support labor-related activities and demonstrations, and organize fundraisers to support many community issues and causes that we mutually felt were important.
One of the Black community’s biggest concerns at the time was drug abuse. In addition to having an inspirational effect, drug abuse had real negative effects. It became one of the most important community problems that the New School tried to address through its educational efforts. This was in large part because Gaston wanted to have some real impact on a problem that he knew well. He was a “perpetually recovering addict” who fought this issue on both a personal and community level. Drug abuse plagued him for most of his life before he finally overcame it completely many years later.
Battling drug abuse in the Black community was one of the undercurrents that made the New School such a dynamic institution because it connected us so firmly to the most downcast elements in the Black community. However, the difficulty Gaston had in successfully addressing his own addiction became a principal source of conflict that ultimately led to the demise of the school. When he was in a successful phase of recovery, Gaston and I got along well, and the school grew as a result. When he returned to using drugs, we fought, and things fell apart. His problem and my desire to help with it led me into the field of drug abuse prevention. This career path lasted many years after the demise of the New School.
The Important Developments that Formed the Basis of the Establishment of the New School of Afro-American Thought
In late 1964-65, just after our involvement with Julius Hobson of ACT, Gaston was employed by local anti-poverty program United Planning Organization (UPO) as a community organizer. Because of his public recognition as a poet, UPO allowed him to develop community efforts centered on cultural issues in the Black community. In that role, he was given a budget and allowed to focus on his first love, the Black Arts Movement and its impact.
To this end, he began to organize a spectacular three-day musical extravaganza that was to tell the story of Black musical expression in this country. It was designed to present a comprehensive look at the Black performing arts with an emphasis on Black musical expression in order to help build the Black community’s pride in its heritage.
This event featured prominent Black artists in each of the most popular Black musical expressions at that time: blues, gospel, jazz, soul, calypso, etc., as well as traditional African dance. Because of the budget provided by the anti-poverty program, several nationally known entertainers took part in this presentation, including the Dance Theater of Harlem, Amiri Baraka, Sun Ra, and many others. Held in October 1965, this event was called “Three Days of Soul,” and it helped make Gaston a local celebrity in D.C.’s Black cultural scene. This status proved to be very useful to our effort at putting together a Black educational institution that had an initial focus on Black cultural expression.
From Anti-Poverty to Black Self-Help
After the success of this cultural extravaganza, the question became “what next?” At that point, I had an answer that was an extension of both my experience at Howard U. and my involvement with the organizations that actually launched the Black Panther Party in Northern California, where I am from.
During this period, I was a Howard student who returned home to Oakland and participated in the formation of the Black Panther Party there, along with my brother and Bobby Seale. Because of my back-and-forth travels at the time, I was able to learn the lessons of the Movement from both experiences and make use of my contacts with Gaston and our efforts in D.C.
The New School’s Connection with the Rest of the Black Liberation Movement
It is a little-known fact that the Black Panther Party as we know it came from the influences of three separate organizations. First was the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) that Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and the staff of SNCC built in Alabama in 1965-67. The LCFO was known as the Black Panther Party, and its symbol was a Black Panther. This was the first Black Panther Party.
Second was the Afro-American Association (AAA), a Black nationalist organization that arose after the University of California refused to allow Malcolm X to speak at its Berkeley campus. The AAA was the most effective statewide, student-led organization in California, and it produced most of the radical Black leadership in the state. The AAA was best-known for its journal, SOULBOOK.
Third was a faction led by Max Stanford that broke off from the AAA and formed the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM). RAM was a factor in the foundation of the Black Panther Party. I was a member of RAM, assigned to develop public activity that could be foundational for the revolution. This is why I joined Gaston Neal in creating the New School.
Malcolm X’s Influence
At the time the New School began, our biggest hero of the day was brother Malcolm X. More than any other Black leader alive at that time, he was speaking the truth, and Gaston and I considered ourselves his followers. His brutal murder made us more determined to carry on his work; establishing an institution that carried on his way of thinking became a primary impetus for the New School.
We felt a real need to push the development of a Black Liberation focus by organizations and independent-minded institutions to help ensure the survival of Black people in any crises. This would be an extension of Malcolm’s work that we must continue. The New School’s responsibility in this regard was to help redefine the political and cultural direction of the Black Movement as well as to help prepare the masses of Black people to survive in a hostile society that was increasingly threatening their survival.
Another factor that made the New School a success was its leaders’ connection with several Pan-African leaders across the country. Such people as Amiri Baraka, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), Chokwe Lumumba, and Frances Cress Welsing, several Pan-African organizations on both the East and West coasts, and the two years that I had spent at Howard University provided the practical experience to establish the New School of Afro-American Thought as a real alternative to what I had experienced at Howard.
The Political Framework of the New School’s Development
The overall framework upon which the school was built was to help Black people transcend the bonds of white liberal approval for our Movement’s goals, objectives, and methods. We needed to establish and work for our own goals and objectives by redefining our own needs and approaches that had to exist without white approval.
Gaston and I both recognized that the Black Movement at that time existed largely at the behest of white liberals and what they would support, not on its own terms. Without the approval of white liberal press, which provided most of the publicity needed to make many people aware and thus supportive, the Movement would decline. We were caught in a syndrome of needing white approval to move forward, which was only granted if they saw something in it for themselves. In order to move forward, we had to break past this dilemma, and we considered that education might be a good starting point for such a break.
It took long conversations between Gaston and me after the “Three Days of Soul” experience to finally decide to put together a school that represented an alternative to both the theory and practice of Howard University’s approach to educating Black people. These conversations grew out of our close working relationship in various community efforts, which proved vital in my attempts to convince Gaston to agree to a transition from an anti-poverty-based arts project to a full-fledged attempt at building an educational institution. What we did not know at that time was that the student wing of the Civil Rights movement, namely SNCC, was engaging in discussions around the same issues. Once both Gaston and I agreed to this approach, we were “off to the races”; the New School was launched in December 1965 and opened its doors in early 1966.
The School’s Development
Just after we began to make our intentions known in the community, we began to attract others who agreed with our perspective. This included Mr. Doug Jones, a community-based Black history scholar who eventually taught the New School’s first and most popular course, inspired by his extensive knowledge of the history of the Black struggle. During the first year of operation, the school consisted primarily of Doug’s class and the musical and cultural offerings developed by Gaston, while I set about developing an educational philosophy and a more extensive course offering needed to legitimately call ourselves a school.
We decided to develop a curriculum based on four primary divisions: a liberal arts section that would include traditional liberal arts courses with an African/Afro-American/Afro-Caribbean focus; a trade school division that would teach the basics of the building trades; a culturally focused division; and a politically focused division that would teach things like political theory, international political conflict, basic community organizing, and other approaches to the process of developing effective community-based activists in the Black community.
Because we had no money for salaries to pay teachers, we relied on the individuals who were part of the group at the time to serve on the board of directors, help out with fundraising, and teach the classes.
This meant that the classes were to be conducted as a kind of discussion group on a topic with a leader who had some knowledge and/or experience in the subject matter. When possible, a recognized expert in that field of study would be brought in to augment the class, provided they could be secured at no cost. The idea was to develop the school’s offerings by expanding this approach until it covered as much of the relevant subject areas as possible. During this time, we set up a New School Board of Directors that included Dick Jackson, Rollie Kimbrough, Michael Seailes, Worthy Douglas Jones, David Gilbert, Norma Shelton, Kermit Reynolds, and Sayeeda Hodo.
Our thinking at the time was that classes could be offered at various sites: in people’s homes, at libraries, in recreation rooms of apartment buildings, and in other public spaces. This would eliminate the need to own or rent additional space to accommodate a much larger curriculum. Even though this was the idea, we started out with in-house classes only that we were able to present in our own space, a store front at 2208 14th Street, N.W. This included our most popular offering at the time, brother Doug Jones’ Black history class, and a Swahili class that I taught by bringing to class the lessons that I was being taught in my Swahili class at Howard University. This class was augmented from time to time by a native speaker in order to give it more depth and practical application.
In addition, classes and discussion groups were held on the contemporary Black Liberation movements, community organizing, African dancing and drumming, martial arts, and what we called our “handyman skills” course, which was designed to teach students to do their own basic home repairs and if necessary, to make extra money by doing repairs for others. This was another subtext of the school: to provide skills that were marketable in addition to being important knowledge. So if you learned photography, you also picked up some knowledge on how to sell your work.
The idea was to build this comprehensive approach to education. As time went on and as instructors and space became available, more offerings would be added, and the school could grow.
The New School’s Impact
Several things developed in 1967 and 1968 while we were in the process of expanding our curriculum. While our cultural outreach efforts and study groups were in full swing, it became clear that the school was going to have much more of an impact as a cultural/political force than as an actual functioning educational institution.
This first became apparent when Stokely Carmichael decided to hold the first meeting of the National Black United Front (NBUF) at the New School of Afro-American Thought. The Front was to be the most inclusive political coalition ever put together in the Black community on a national level. It was to involve Black people of various political perspectives who were willing to join an all-Black formation. Its unique aspect was that it excluded all other ethnic groups and was to be convened at the New School of Afro-American Thought, a well-known, exclusively Black institution. This effort brought many of the mainstream politicians and activists of the day to the New School to NBUF’s first meeting in 1967.
Such mainstream Black politicians as Mr. Channing Phillips (the Black politician who, prior to Barack Obama, had come closest to being nominated by the National Democratic Party to be its presidential candidate) as well as much of the local civil rights establishment came together to form an exclusively Black organization. Unlike other political coalitions that Blacks either had formed or had been a part of, this coalition was put together to address only the interests and needs of Black people. The meeting to organize it was held in our newly formed Black-only institution whose sole purpose was to address the educational needs of Black people.
The fact that Stokely selected the New School rather than Howard University to host this gathering proved to be an important political statement at the time and a real boost to the idea that Black people need not depend on others directly or indirectly to make real progress.
A second important development that occurred during this period was the students’ takeover of the Howard University Administration building in 1968. Some of the student leaders responsible for the takeover attended classes at the New School. One of their demands of Howard’s administration was to improve their relationship with the Black community. To demonstrate what that might look like, the New School was invited to conduct classes and provide African-centered entertainment to the students during that takeover.
The New School’s out-front role conducting classes during the 1968 takeover made the public, the media, and the rest of Howard’s student body more aware of the New School’s existence and the role it played in many of the issues that were important to the students at the time. In addition, our involvement turned out to have a dramatic effect on my personal life, setting the tone for important contributions I made to impact my community in my later years.
An Important Personal Development
It turned out that an assistant dean of Howard’s graduate school, Dr. Roy Jones, had actually attended one of the classes that I conducted during the student takeover. The class was called “The Politics in Contemporary Africa” and was held on the front lawn of the Administration building. After the class was over, Dr. Jones approached me about my own academic status at Howard and following a brief discussion, Dr. Jones invited me to join his staff at the graduate school and complete my degree while helping to develop a graduate urban studies program. In many ways, I saw this offer as a manifestation of one of the New School’s purposes: getting Howard to be more responsive to the Black community’s real needs.
Dr. Jones’ dream was to develop qualified urban specialists who would work for the interests of the Black community in urban settings throughout the country. Individuals who went through this program would be available to be employed by the newly emerging Black mayors across the country.
After several days of consideration, I decided to accept this offer, in part, because brother Gaston and I were going through one of our down periods and were not getting along at the time. As a result, the school was not doing well. I resigned from the New School to take this staff position at Howard University and became a community-focused research associate in what was called at the time the Center for Community Studies.
Publicizing Our Framework
A third development that overshadowed the New School’s efforts was the decision to present our perspective on Black education at the organizing conference of the Association of Afro-American Educators (AAE) in Chicago, Ill., in June 1968. This organization was being put together by a group of Black educators around the country to foster the educational needs of Black youth in public school settings. Its leader was a teacher and activist out of Brooklyn, N.Y., named Mr. Preston Wilcox. Preston was heavily involved in the fight to make the New York City public school system much more responsive to Black students’ needs. He had decided to turn that fight into a national effort by organizing Black teachers across the country into a national Black educational advocacy organization.
It was the New School’s position that our approach to the educational needs of Black people needed to be presented to this group at their convening. Three New School board members—Brother Zolili, Rollie Kimbrough, and I—drafted a paper to present at this gathering that explained our educational philosophy in the broadest possible framework. Even though we were not allowed to present our paper formally to the body at this gathering, we passed it out to everyone who attended and talked to as many delegates as possible about our ideas.
One important result was that our paper was the only one from the AAE gathering that the Journal of Negro Education published in its then-forthcoming issue. This took not only AAE by surprise; it certainly surprised us as well. Our paper’s publication went a long way to further enhance the reputation of the New School as an institution that should be taken seriously. This proved to us that we were onto something important and that even though we were not able to fully develop our institution, its approach was having a profound impact on the thinking of Black people.
In addition to these developments, the New School’s reputation was enhanced by many other soon-to-be well-known people who spent time there. Dr. Frances Cress Welsing often attended brother Jones’ class prior to writing her classic work, The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors. Brother Alex Haley came to the New School to read from his not-yet-published work “Roots,” which later became the most-watched TV series of all time. Other notables included Dr. Nathan Hare, Walter Fauntroy, Chuck Stone, and others. Well-known poets such as Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and Amiri Baraka, and local favorites such as Marion Barry, Petey Greene, Roena Rand, Ishakamusa Barashango, and H. Rap Brown all participated in activities at the school or were in and out of the New School on a regular basis.
The fact is, the New School of Afro-American Thought was much more successful as a cultural/political think tank, rallying point, idea generator, and motivator of others’ efforts than it was as an educational institution in its own right. Its curriculum was never fully developed, it never graduated a single class, and it only lasted a few months past four years, but its impact over that short period was monumental, and it stands as an important milestone in the Black Power Movement in the Washington, D.C. community.
Baba Lumumba was the co-founder and director of the New School of Afro-American Thought. He also co-founded the first Black Panther Party in California, edited SOULBOOK, and served on the board of directors of Drum and Spear Bookstore.
Copyright © 2020 Baba Lumumba (Don Freeman). All rights reserved.
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