Posted on September 4, 2021

Nikole Hannah-Jones Opening After-School Program,’1619 Freedom School,’ in Waterloo

Melody Mercado, Des Moines Register, August 31, 2021

Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and Iowa native Nikole Hannah-Jones is launching a free, community-based after-school literacy program for students in the Waterloo Community School District.

The 1619 Freedom School will help students improve literacy skills and develop a passion for reading through “liberating instruction centered on Black American history,” its mission says.

Hannah-Jones, a graduate of Waterloo West High School, told the Des Moines Register she had been wanting to start a literacy program, but was also looking for a way to give back to her hometown.

In 2018, 24/7 Wall Street named Waterloo, the city with the highest concentration of Black Iowans, the worst city for Black Americans based on unemployment, income disparities, homeownership and high school graduation rates. Additionally, Black students in the Waterloo School District, which make up 26% of the district, are, on average, 2.2 grades behind their white peers, according to data by ProPublica.

The 1619 Freedom School will offer a five-day-a-week program targeting students whose standardized test scores show they are behind academically — starting with fourth-grade students at the district’s Walter Cunningham Elementary School, a school the organization identifies as having the highest poverty and segregation rate in the district.


The program’s leadership team consists of five Black women, including Hannah-Jones, all native to Waterloo, with deep roots in the community.


Everything about the program — from the name to the color theme and curriculum — is intentional, Hannah-Jones said.

The program is named for the beginning of Black American history — 1619 — and the “freedom schools” that were founded during the civil rights movement, which were free, temporary, alternative schools to educate Black youth on their history and how to fight for social, economic, political and economic equality.

The program’s colors — black, red and green — are the colors of the Black Nationalist Flag so that students can “evoke a sense of pride in their culture.”

“We’re intentional with everything that we’re doing with this … to teach children to fight for their own liberation and to show them that they have a deep, storied past that they can be proud of,” Hannah-Jones said. “The literature on this is very clear that when Black students are exposed to Black history, they excel — they do better, academically.”

The school’s curriculum was designed by Sabrina Nero, an associate teaching professor at Georgetown University, and LaGarrett King, an associate professor at the University of Missouri.

Historical figures in the curriculum include Audrey Faye Hendricks, who, as a 9-year-old in 1963, was one of the youngest to get arrested during a civil rights march, and Claudette Colvin, who, in 1955, refused to move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama bus at age 15. Rosa Parks would go on to do the same thing nine months later.


Republicans in the Iowa Legislature passed a bill earlier this year that they say bans “critical race theory,” although the law does not specifically mention that term. There is disagreement surrounding what the law does and does not ban, particularly in relation to training and curriculum in public schools.


Hannah-Jones said the controversy in Iowa around critical race theory and her 1619 Project, which lawmakers had considered banning in schools earlier this year, has had a chilling effect on potential partnerships and funding opportunities for the program.