In every locality and living room in America, parents are consumed by one of the most difficult questions of our time: should I send my child back to school? As we mire through a viral pandemic, Black parents are seriously concerned about the safety of our children—as we should be. Knowing this, I understand why some may question our opening of The Piney Woods School—the oldest historically Black residential school in the nation—this fall. The answer is simple: we have been a safe haven for Black students for more than a century, and today more than ever, Black children need a safe space to learn.
Safety concerns are not new for Black parents and Black communities. When our school was founded in 1909, Black parents had to protect their children from the wrath of Jim Crow. Our school’s founder barely escaped a lynching for merely trying to educate Black children. Police brutality, white supremacy and rampant poverty have seemingly created even more perils for Black children. The truth: the marginalization of Black people is an endemic and enduring reality of American life. That law enforcement strangled life from George Floyd was but the latest episode in our saga.
From the birth of this nation, the Constitution explicitly compromised our full worth as persons, making us only three-fifths thereof. The structural inequities of racism leave little question about why Black children live life on the defensive. Where might Black children find refuge? I submit they can find it most easily among people who look like them and culturally embrace them. I do not mean to suggest that racial integration is bad. But inasmuch as we manufacture new products in clean warehouses, we too should develop our young people in the most supportive space we can create, one without the constant resistance of racism. Indeed, learning facilitated by the right circumstances is precisely the way to ensure our students can handle the challenges they will confront in the world.
Today the endemic presence of racism in America is joined by a public health pandemic of global proportions. Like racism, there may be no outward signs that someone harbors the virus, yet this threat plagues our communities, silently taking the lives of far too many of our loved ones. Black people, who more often live in more densely populated communities, and in closer proximity to those who are high risk or highly exposed, are disproportionately dying from the spread of COVID-19. The combination of the public health crisis and the reality of structural racism inflict upon our children a double whammy of injustices.
A third silent killer looms: educational disparity. Black children are disproportionately harmed by school closures, and we refuse to stand by while our children suffer yet again. To be fair, our school is uniquely fortunate to have plenty of space on campus to provide single-occupancy rooms for our students, outdoor classrooms, and nearly 2,000 rural acres enabling us to implement the recommended physical distancing guidelines. But those characteristics are not what make our learning community special. Instead, we are most fundamentally defined by our values for freedom and social justice, and by our people who fight for our children’s rights to experience these values.
I recognize not all schools can open safely. But let’s challenge ourselves and our communities to stay focused on the core of our work. As our beloved John Lewis reminds us, let’s “keep our eyes on the prize.” The dangers of COVID-19 are no less real than the racism with which we are all too familiar. We are opening our school because that reality even more strongly supports the necessity of a continued safe haven from our kids. Our work - our opening - represents our continued march toward justice too long and too often denied.
Will Crossley is president of The Piney Woods School in Piney Woods, Mississippi. He previously served in the Obama administration as a senior advisor at the U.S. Department of Education.