Thursday, February 3, 2011

Black History Month Feature: Under the Radar - The New School of Afro American Thought

Documentary Film Examines a Prominent DC Afro-Centric Educational Institution

Since its founding, Black History Month has been about education. Its founder Carter G. Woodson wanted to improve the overall quality of history education in America by focusing on important narratives that had largely been overlooked due to racial discrimination. One of the projects from last year's DC Community Heritage Project grant cycle was a documentary film, called Under the Radar: the New School of Afro American Thought, on an often overlooked Washington, DC institution. The school was founded in 1966 by Don Freeman and poet Gaston Neal. From its original location at 2208 14th Street, NW (boarded building in above image), the New School offered black people of all ages and socioeconomic conditions the opportunity to learn about their own African heritage and culture. 

The documentary brings together some of the individuals that helped make the New School a successful and important institution in Washington, DC. The interviews with former students express the impact that exposure to African culture had on their adult lives. Don Freeman, the surviving founder, talks about the impact the school had on the community, and its influence on similar institutions across the country.

Black separatism and Afro-centric education are still contentious issues. Are they appropriate reactions to centuries of slavery, segregation, discrimination, and Euro-centric education? Is it possible to reconcile mainstream ideas about our shared past with those presented at the New School? Were the goals of the New School similar to those of Woodson's Negro History Week (the precursor to Black History Month); that a dedicated study of African origins gradually contribute to the accepted narrative? Leave a comment, and let us know what you think about the New School and its contribution to education in Washington, DC.

This highlight from the DC Digital Museum collection is part of the Humanities Council of Washington, DC's Black History Month series. Subscribe to the blog to get all the lastest updates!


  1. I had no idea about the New School until hearing about this DC Community Heritage Project. Thank you for sharing this important part of DC history!

  2. I've walked by this building so many times. I would not have guessed that it represented such an important part of DC's history.

    Afro-centrism is an understandable reaction to African invisibility from the historical record, and the education the film's narrators received at the school certainly seems to have helped them succeed.

    The fact that this video is included in a collection that presumes to cover all DC history and culture seems to indicate that despite separatist intentions, the New School as a historical entity has been subsumed into the general narrative.

  3. it's wonderful to see THE NEW SCHOOL for AFRO-AMERICAN THOUGHT recognized for its contribution to the re-awakening of our african consciousness and our african american heritage.
    my husband and i spent many evenings with gaston neal and other artists, musicians, painters,teachers, university students: studying, debating and growing in political knowledge and pan-africanism.
    neal and don freeman made a great contribution to the d.c. of the 60's.

  4. I found out about New School after many years of walking up and down 14th street; I was amazed that I hadn't heard of it before. Afrocentricity is more than just an "understandable reaction" to centuries of subjugation, it is a necessary one. I think the nationalistic implications of afrocentricity limits people's understanding of how vital cognitive reorientation is to a healing process, in this case, healing from oppression and invisibilization. If afrocentricity were viewed as reorientation, rather than as a political aspiration, i think people would understand that it is hardly a reaction, and rather the beginning of a new way altogether.

  5. Thank-you all for the comments. This is a great conversation, quite pertinent to life in the District of Columbia.