In this moment marked by the coronavirus pandemic, national uprisings against police brutality and systemic racism, and reports of harmful and dismissive treatment of Black students in classrooms, Black families are withdrawing from local public schools at rates that far exceed previous years. It is a reminder that despite 65 years of desegregating our nation’s schools, the school integration movement has failed to provide Black students with the conditions they need to thrive — well-funded schools, relevant curriculum and freedom from discrimination.
But this is not new. Facing unacceptable educational conditions for their children in the past, Black families have made the same difficult decision to come together, organize, defend their rights to educate their children and create anti-racist alternatives that empower communities.
In 1931, a truant officer turned up at the home of Sister Clara Muhammad, a mother of eight and the wife of Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) spiritual leader. Pounding his fist on her door, the officer demanded that Clara Muhammad send her children back to the Detroit Public Schools. Muhammad, however, refused in an effort to protect her children from what Black activists had identified as the deeply entrenched racism in the city’s schools.
At the time, activists in Detroit pointed to documented acts of discrimination against African American teachers, unequal funding for schools serving Detroit’s Black students and White families who fought against school integration. In response, many Black families, with the support of the NAACP, galvanized a “continuous fight against discrimination in our school system.”
The situation in Detroit was far from unique at the time. In 1932, in Berwyn, Pa., the township school board allocated $250,000 toward the construction of a new school but forbade African American enrollment, claiming that Black students already had a school building, without acknowledging that the existing building was old and under-resourced.
Like Muhammad, Black families voiced their displeasure with their feet. They withdrew some 200 children from the local public schools for the duration of the 1932-33 school year, refusing to consent to Southern-style Jim Crow schools in their Pennsylvania community. In October 1933, four parents were charged with violating state truancy laws and a judge fined them $2.50, nearly the equivalent of a day’s wages for a domestic worker. Each parent opted to serve jail time instead of paying the fine.
Later that year in Montclair, N.J., five African American parents similarly defied state truancy laws in response to a local school board’s attempts to concentrate all Black children into one school, disregarding district boundaries. Again, they faced charges for violating the law.
In 1934, these conditions led the U.S. Department of the Interior to organize a National Conference on the Education of Negroes. Conference attendees, including national education leaders and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, identified “serious deficiencies and inequalities in Negro education facilities” and found that one-third of African American students were out of school because of inadequate or inaccessible school facilities.
For Muhammad, the decision to keep her children out of the public schools and find alternative ways to ensure an education for them was a symbol of self-determination. Armed with just a seventh-grade education, a commitment to educate, a small chalkboard, paper and pencils, Muhammad quickly became the inaugural teacher of the NOI, educating her own children along with others inside her family home.
There she taught reading and writing using her own family’s history and the core tenets of her faith to teach students how to express their own opinions — courageous acts of educational resistance that challenged rote memorization common in classrooms at that time.
By 1932, Muhammad’s home-based school had grown into the new University of Islam, an independently run Nation of Islam elementary and secondary school for Black children in the Detroit area.
Many Black families living amid racism and Jim Crow regarded the University of Islam as an important model of responsive teaching meant to foster social inquiry, create cultural self-awareness and uplift the race. At a time when public school education for Black children was limited to basic reading skills, the University of Islam promoted its core beliefs — know self, love self and do for self — to foster academic achievement and community reeducation.
Within a few years, 400 students from NOI families withdrew from the public schools and studied under the leadership of Muhammad. When Detroit school officials grew alarmed at the large numbers of African American students withdrawing from the public schools, they ordered the University of Islam to close, classifying it as a “cult” school.
On April 16, 1934, Detroit police surrounded the school, blocked entrances, cut communication wires and raided the building. The Atlanta Daily World chronicled the day’s events as “the wildest scenes of rioting and battling ever recorded in Detroit police annals.” Police officers arrested 19 teachers and staff for running a school that did not have state approval to operate and for “subversive” teaching. The police seized books and school records for an investigation they claimed was to “determine if the University of Islam met the state requirements for public and parochial schools.”
At a judicial hearing the following week, the judge dismissed charges against all of the teachers, except for NOI leader Elijah Muhammad, who was placed on six months’ probation on the condition that he return the students to the Detroit public schools.
But this did not deter the Black community, and as the NOI spread across America during the years of Jim Crow, so too did its schools. School leaders sought to meet state standards for enrollment and curriculum, despite continued police attempts to shut down their schools.
By 1975, Clara Muhammad’s first school in her living room had given way to a network of 41 independent elementary and secondary schools across major American cities and towns, including Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, New York, Detroit and Washington, D.C. After her death, her youngest son, Imam W.D. Muhammad, then serving as the leader of the NOI, renamed the schools in her honor, calling them the Clara Muhammad Schools.
Rafiq Iddin, a staff member at a Clara Muhammad school in Philadelphia during the mid-1990s, put it this way: “We felt that public schools were mis-educating us so we began hiring our own teachers and taking our children out of the public schools.”
Today many Black families are still facing injustices in the public schools, including high rates of exclusionary discipline, too few Black teachers and re-segregated schools. This leads to difficult choices, just as Clara Muhammad and the families who joined her schools realized in the 1930s.
Although Black families today do not face the same threats of jail sentences and court fines for withdrawing from public schools, they do worry about finding alternative school solutions. Some choose to home-school, an option made more accessible through online networks and curriculums that center on the needs of Black families. No longer limited by geography, many home-school families come together to organize communities that share social and academic learning opportunities. Other families seek charter schools or independent schools led by educators who center on the well-being of Black children.
The decision to withdraw children from school was not easy and it was not neutral in the 1930s. Today it remains a powerful act of social resistance.