When Dr. El Senzengakulu Zulu traveled to Mississippi as one of the Freedom Riders during the early 1960s, he remembers that many of the black men, women and children he encountered couldn't read or write.
If a person couldn't read or write, they wouldn't be allowed to vote. In this way, segregationists and those who favored the continuation of the caste system enshrined in slavery and Jim Crow, kept black people in bondage by another name almost 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed granting them freedom.
"One hundred and thirteen children and young people were arrested in Laurel, Miss. The government wouldn't allow them to go back to school after they had demonstrated. They couldn't read or write so we started the freedom schools," said Zulu.
While engaged in voter registration efforts, Zulu said he and his compatriots held classes whenever and wherever they could.
"We put on overalls, went out into the fields, pretended to chop and pick cotton and took people into the woods where we had a blackboard," he recalled. "That's why I'm so gung-ho to educate and free our people."
Zulu said he met Fannie Lou Hamer, who later became a powerful Civil Rights grassroots organizer, in Rulesville, Miss.
"We found her on a cotton plantation. She didn't know she had the right to vote. We took her downtown and registered her," he said. "The plantation owner came to where she lived and said, 'Fannie, Fannie Lou, come out here. I understand that you went downtown and became a registered voter. Go back downtown and take your name off that book."'
Hamer refused and the Ku Klux Klan came at night to where she lived and shot it up. No one was hurt, Zulu said, but activists spirited her out of town.
Zulu said any blacks who dared register in the South faced death and serious injury for bucking the status quo. Many lost their jobs, were harassed, beaten and lynched. But he and his cadre of activists continued to teach African Americans how to read and write.
It is from these experiences that Ujamaa Shule – located in Northwest – came into existence. The school, founded by Zulu opened on May 4, 1968. He took over as director after the two people asked to take that role said they didn't think an African-centered school could succeed.
"When I came to D.C., I went to law school at Howard University," he said. "I thought we can demonstrate all we want, but until we make education a part of our DNA, nothing will change. We didn't have funds but we started anyway."
Zulu said the institution started with five or six children and moved a grade a year although the system is ungraded. Students are promoted based on their ability not their ages. He accepts no money from any outside institution to maintain the school's independence.
Zulu, born Lester G. McKinnie in a small town in western Tennessee, said he began fighting racism, bigotry and discrimination as a young man. He recalls shining shoes as a 10-year-old and having a white man try to kick him. The daily indignities grated on him and he said he moved naturally into the Civil Rights struggle.
"I was leaving a small town going to the big city thinking I could get away," he said soberly of his move to Nashville, Tenn. "Mothers and fathers, our elders couldn't sit down, get a cup of coffee in downtown Nashville so John Lewis, Diane Nash, Freddy Leonard, Paul Brooks, we all decided to do something about it. They called us the 'Dirty Dozen.' Hot or cold, we were out there."
"We got hundreds of high school students to join us. There was not much involvement from college students until they saw our success. We just moved right into it."
He said he was taking his final exam at Tennessee State, left and journeyed to D.C. to join the Freedom Riders. Zulu said he was beaten and brutalized by police in Nashville, jailed at the notorious Parchment Prison in Mississippi for six months, arrested 69 times and thought many times that he was going to die. He is a reluctant hero.
"I'm sure that I get tired but I don't," he said as he adjusted a photo in the school's lobby. "I feel lucky for myself that I'm in this role as an educator; I don't want to be in this role, I want it to end, but we're talking about building here and lending those skills to our family in Africa."
"I am thankful to God and the Ancestors for their love and support and for allowing me to do this work."
In the Shule's lobby, on the walls hang pictures which document the institution's 45 years and those who've been a part of its growth. Included are photos of Zulu with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Hon. Louis Farrakhan; Hamer; Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.); Drs. Maulana Karenga, Frances Cress Welsing, Yosef Ben Jochannan, Chancellor Williams and John Henrik Clarke; Kwame Ture aka Stokely Carmichael, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, former Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah and Shirley Graham DuBois.
When he began Ujamaa, Zulu said too many children graduating from District schools couldn't read or write. Using the Zulu method of learning, his students learn math and science, English, computer science, Zulu and Kiswahili, Pan African/Black Nationalist Critical Thinking, African dancing and drumming, Kung Fu, capoeira and womanhood and manhood training. Students usually graduate at ages 15 or 16 and recently students' SAT scores ranged from 1600 to 1900. Most are college graduates with jobs across a spectrum of careers.
"The school was organized for African children because we were discriminated against and not allowed to succeed. We focus on dealing with African people doing all we can to be successful. We're not racist, we just want our children to excel," Zulu said.