BALTIMORE—Racial inequality in Baltimore’s public schools is in part the byproduct of long-standing neglect. In a system in which eight out of 10 students are black, broken heaters forced students to learn in frigid temperatures this past winter. Black children in Baltimore’s education system face systemic disadvantages: They’re suspended at much higher rates than their white peers; they rarely pass their math or reading tests; their campuses are chronically underfunded.

Yet this stark reality is juxtaposed with a largely unnoticed educational phenomenon underway in the city.

In a brightly painted row house in East Baltimore, Cameren Queen, who’s 13, walked confidently to a colorful trifold poster, cleared her throat, and began to speak. Her oral presentation—“All About Hepatitis C”—was the culmination of two weeks of work. With animated precision, she rattled off common symptoms of hepatitis C, specified risk factors, described prevention strategies, and listed treatment plans. Seated to her right, the instructor—her mother, April VaiVai—listened intently, scrutinizing facts and peppering Cameren with questions. The two of them are part of a thriving community of black homeschooling families, here in Baltimore and elsewhere throughout the country, taking the adage “Parents are a child’s first teacher” to another level.

The homeschooling population in the United States is predominantly white and concentrated in suburban or rural areas. In 2016, black children accounted for 8 percent of the 1.7 million homeschooled students nationally, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. What federal education data don’t show, though, is what’s driving those 136,000 or so black students and their families into homeschooling. Nor do the data reveal the tenacity and tradition that bond this homeschooling movement—a movement that challenges many of the prevailing stereotypes about homeschooling, which tends to be characterized as the province of conservative Christians, public-school opponents, and government skeptics.

For VaiVai and many other black homeschoolers, seizing control of their children’s schooling is an act of affirmation—a means of liberating themselves from the systemic racism embedded in so many of today’s schools and continuing the campaign for educational independence launched by their ancestors more than a century ago. In doing so, many are channeling an often overlooked history of black learning in America that’s rooted in liberation from enslavement. When seen in this light, the modern black-homeschooling movement is evocative of African Americans’ generations-long struggle to change their children’s destiny through education—and to do so themselves.

April VaiVai teaches her daughter, Cameren Queen. (Allison Zaucha)

VaiVai first considered homeschooling when Cameren, who’d previously attended two Baltimore charter schools, was in fourth grade. By fifth grade, it was a fait accompli. Cameren, who was in agreement, would be taught at home. Driven by a deep connection to black culture, VaiVai infuses her daughter’s homeschool curriculum with histories and knowledge that counter the dominant narrative of black inferiority pervasive in schools and the media—abstaining from European and Anglo-American viewpoints, and incorporating the history of the African diaspora into lessons across subjects.

“The No. 1 thing is to throw out all of those standards that white America will tell you your child should [know],” VaiVai said, referring to curricula and teaching practices that fail to emphasize black excellence—for example, ignoring early accomplishments of Africans and African Americans in math and science. Accepting these standards, VaiVai continued, is what “screwed us up.”

Cameren Queen’s notebook (Allison Zaucha)

The movement certainly has detractors. Among them are those who take issue with homeschooling more generally, arguing that it is not sufficiently regulated as to guarantee children are getting a quality education. And homeschooling often comes under scrutiny for its perceived limitations when it comes to ensuring kids’ socialization—the ramifications potentially intensified for black kids considering they, as a group, are still contending with entrenched marginalization. (Although, of course, many black homeschooling parents are very attuned to the need to socialize their children to prepare them for the outside world. “We raise our children to understand that it’s a very big world,” said Tanisha Armstrong, a black homeschooling parent. Parents like herself, she continued, tell their kids: “Get out there. Be friendly. Be you. And don’t worry about any of the other little things that may come in and interrupt that.”)  

But the deeper criticisms of black homeschooling come from other black education advocates, some of whom argue that homeschooling black children effectively amounts to an attack on the very values and legacy its advocates espouse. African American critics have argued that black parents who homeschool are shunning their Topeka, Kansas, predecessors who in the 1950s took it upon themselves to put an end to school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. Taking black children out of public schools and into home-based classrooms, these critics contend, dilutes the landmark Supreme Court case’s symbolic importance and threatens to reinforce the harm African American students experienced when they were banned from attending white schools. Paula Penn-Nabrit, an African American scholar who homeschooled her children in the 1990s, described in her memoir how her middle-class family rejected her choice for this reason. Her circumstances were particularly fraught: Her husband’s uncle argued the Brown v. Board of Education case with Thurgood Marshall. “To other members of their family,” she wrote, “it seemed as if Paula and C. Madison [her husband] were turning their backs on a rich educational legacy.”

That aside, the black-homeschooling movement deserves scrutiny simply because there isn’t much reliable quantitative data on the phenomenon. Is black homeschooling gaining or losing traction? Where? How are these kids faring? All of this is difficult to ascertain. A 2016 journal article on black-homeschooling practices estimated that the number of black youngsters being schooled at home tripled from 1999 to 2007, while federal survey data found no statistical difference in the percentage of black homeschooled students over the four-year period starting in 2012. The discrepancies are due to differences in methodology and the difficulty of measuring this phenomenon.

Similarly, it’s hard to characterize black homeschooling outcomes definitively. A 2015 study in the Journal of School Choice did find that black homeschooled students scored “significantly higher” on reading and math tests than did black students enrolled in public schools; that study, though, was conducted by a researcher at an organization that advocates for homeschooling. Other data, from less partial sources, is scant.

But even without quantitative evidence, the appeal of black homeschooling for many parents is plain—and there are a lot of resources emerging to support them. VaiVai pointed to the flourishing communities of black homeschoolers she’s met in Georgia, Colorado, and Pennsylvania; countless others cited a slew of black-homeschooling support groups, as well as the availability of networking events tailored to such families. “For me and the women that I homeschool with,” VaiVai said, “we’re definitely black first.”

April VaiVai and Cameren Queen (Allison Zaucha)

Meanwhile, a growing body of research helps paint a qualitative image of the black-homeschooling population—a population that is, as the Temple University African American studies professor Ama Mazama noted in a 2016 analysis, ideologically diverse, “ranging from Christian fundamentalists to African cultural nationalists and a myriad [of] nuances in between.” Mazama’s conclusions dovetail with those of Cheryl Fields-Smith, an associate education professor at the University of Georgia who is one of the few researchers nationwide to investigate the motivations for black families that do homeschool. Field-Smith’s findings show that a confluence of factors influence the decision, including their perceptions of and experience with conventional schools and their exposure to other home educators.

News stories have largely focused on the phenomenon as a response to entrenched stigmas against and low expectations for African American children in traditional schools. Yet, echoing findings outlined in Mazama’s analysis, imparting black culture “contributed tremendously” to the decision to homeschool for the 54 black home educators interviewed in Field-Smiths’s 2013 study; respondents saw homeschooling as a means of thwarting the negative images of African Americans found outside parents’ homes in television, film, books, and beyond. “[In spite of] all the achievements, all the ways black people have contributed to America, [black parents] are raising children into a world that sees us as less than,” said Fields-Smith, who’s African American and has studied black homeschooling patterns for 12 years. “White people don’t have that problem … that sense of urgency to” ensure their kids overcome notions about their inferiority.

Cameren Queen (Allison Zaucha)

These conclusions are consistent with more-recent research showing black parents’ overwhelming dissatisfaction with the quality of schooling their children receive. A May 2017 survey from the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a D.C.-based civil-rights group, polled 600 black parents and family members across the country on their beliefs about public schools. Close to three in four respondents said the education black students receive is worse than the education delivered to white students. And among parents whose children were taught by mostly white teachers, only 42 percent believed that schools were trying their best to educate black kids—16 percent fewer than the black parents whose children had mostly black instructors.

Yet Fields-Smith made a point of noting the respect black families had for the people running and teaching in neighborhood schools. What these families objected to is the institutional racism that underpins those schools—the tendency to discipline children of color at higher rates than their black peers, for example, and the residential segregation that determines the educational quality and demographic composition of a given campus.

In other words, in opting to homeschool, the parents weren’t necessarily seeking to shelter their children from a learning environment they believed deliberately disenfranchised black kids. They had simply accepted what they see as the unfortunate reality of the country’s public-education system: one comprising well-intended schools that are crippled by America’s racist legacy. To liberate their children from this trap, they were performing an act of extreme self-reliance—taking it upon themselves to provide them an education that was more personal, more engaging, and more anchored in black self-discovery. “Nobody [in my study] bashed public schools as an institution,” Fields-Smith said. But “how long do you try to stay in there … before you realize time is wasting [and] you’ve got to make a change?”

Such racial perceptions and experiences set black homeschoolers apart from their white counterparts—as do black homeschooling’s origins in African Americans’ historical efforts to take ownership over their own education and knowledge. Fields-Smith likened the black-homeschooling movement to enslaved black people’s pursuit of literacy, which they equated with freedom and empowerment. The University of Georgia researcher recounted: “When told we could not be educated, we went out in the woods, we dug a pit, and when somebody learned to read, they’d sneak out at night, go down in that pit with a light, and teach [others] how to read, because it was that important.” Today, for black home educators, “it’s still that ‘each one, reach one’” mentality, she explained. “It looks different, but it harkens back to who we are, who we have been in our educational history.”

Tracing that history yields a better understanding of how black homeschooling emerged—and of how it could continue to evolve. In the 2007 book Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom, the historian Heather Andrea Williams examined black Americans’ perseverance in their pursuit of learning during slavery, the Civil War, and their first decades of freedom. Using enslaved peoples’ narratives and autobiographies, she documented the significance of education “as an instrument of resistance … to gain some control over their own lives.”

During the antebellum period, legislatures across the South—viewing literacy as a direct threat to the institution of slavery—passed laws criminalizing reading or writing for enslaved and free blacks. The movement to oppose black education also extended to northern free states such as Connecticut, where a boarding school founded by abolitionists in 1832 for black girls was promptly banned by the legislature and then set ablaze by local residents.

In the face of the backlash, black people educated themselves. According to Williams, archaeologists excavating slave cabins more than a century after the Civil War found, among the more-predictable artifacts, “the remains of graphite pencils and writing slates, some with words and numbers still written on them.”

Learning was integral to black people’s emancipation and autonomy both before and after the Civil War. During Reconstruction, as the country sought to rebuild and reshape society in the former Confederacy, “the values of self-help and self-determination underlay the ex-slaves’ educational movement,” writes the black-education scholar James D. Anderson in his book The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935.

In the years after emancipation, formerly enslaved men and women established a formal system of schooling for their children, eventually aided by northern white missionaries and the congressionally established Freedmen’s Bureau, which was formed to help transition black people from slavery to freedom. Yet the conflicting interests of northern allies and philanthropists, along with white southerners who regained control of state governments after Reconstruction, suppressed the growth of black education, Anderson concludes, impeding freed people’s ability to mold their children’s education without external forces suppressing their vision.

The notion of self-reliance, present in much of the idealism that motivates black homeschooling, was a unifying theme of African American education from slavery through the post–Civil War era to Jim Crow segregation. The 1964 Mississippi Freedom Schools are a vivid example. Conceived and organized by mostly college-age black civil-rights activists, Freedom Schools counteracted the segregationist practices in Mississippi’s black public schools through their six-week summer program. Central to the Freedom School curriculum was students’ experiences with the Jim Crow racial order—whites-only signs, lynchings, racial epithets, and so on—as recorded in To Write in the Light of Freedom, a collection of newspapers published by black youth.

Some 40 Freedom Schools—held in churches, on porches, and under trees—taught thousands of black students “the rich traditions of black resistance,” according to the collection. As illustrated by a letter from the 11-year-old Freedom School student Lynette Y. of Hattiesburg to then–Mississippi Governor Paul B. Johnson Jr.: “I want to learn about my race … I want to have the opportunity to learn here what I cannot learn in my regular school … And I want to be a first-class citizen.”

For hundreds of years, black people have united to alter the trajectory of their children’s lives through education. It was with that heritage in mind that Pier Penic in 2004 founded Culture at Home, an African American homeschool support group serving families in the Washington, D.C., region. As a child in the mid-1970s, Penic endured eggs, bottles, and rocks thrown at her school bus in response to court-ordered busing in Boston. The violence prompted her parents to pull her out of the public-education system and enroll her in a series of private and parochial schools.

Not until fourth grade at an alternative school with an African-focused curriculum in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood did Penic feel valued and validated as a black student. It’s a sentiment she’s carried with her through two decades as a homeschooling parent and advocate for the cause. Of the roughly 500 families she’s counseled since 2002, Penic estimates that about 85 percent chose homeschooling primarily to influence how their children think about themselves and their racial group. “Many of them have said [as parents] that they want to incorporate [into their kids’ schooling] the experience and legacy of being an African American in this country … They want their children to understand … that their ancestors were beaten, sold, killed just [for] learning to read one letter.”

It’s this tradition, one that stands somewhat in contrast to the fight for integration, that black homeschooling continues, Fields-Smith wrote in her 2013 study. “This is a notable paradigmatic shift … unlike their forefathers and foremothers, black homeschoolers are standing outside the doors of … public  education, which is the very institution that many civil rights leaders sought equal access to on behalf of black Americans,” she concluded. “The mere presence of black homeschoolers in growing numbers challenges the ‘common-sense’ assumption that access to desegregated schools would automatically bring equity in instruction and opportunity.”

Penic, whose in-laws and black friends cited the Brown v. Board ruling in criticizing her decision to homeschool, echoed the urgency Fields-Smith expressed. “We can’t really contribute to a collaborative effort [of racial advancement] if we are part of a system that sends us to prison,” Penic said. “We get power from knowing that we educated our children, way before we were allowed into the public-school system.” What black homeschoolers have in common, Fields-Smith added, is a willingness to make relatively extreme sacrifices for their children’s education.

That’s certainly the case for Armstrong, a mother of five from Salisbury, Maryland, who embarked on homeschooling nearly a decade ago. She cast aside aspirations of earning a master’s degree and being a classroom teacher so she could nurture her own children to their maximum potential. “We [my husband and I] really looked at it less from a perspective of what the school was or wasn't doing, and [focused on] our end goals for [our kids] and for their education,” she said. “[Black] children are constantly being told what they’re not. We decided we were not going to allow that to happen.”

And that’s what Cameren Queen has experienced. In a light-filled dining room back in East Baltimore, Queen mixed food coloring, water, glue, and Borax detergent to construct a model of a healthy liver, as her mother pulled up a picture on her cellphone for comparison. One motivation for choosing the hepatitis C assignment was family and friends who have died from preventable diseases—notably, black Americans have disproportionately higher rates of hepatitis C infection and illness-related deaths.

As the day continued, her mother transitioned to a lesson on English composition, referring to Maryland’s requirements for home instruction—which stipulate “regular, thorough instruction in the studies usually taught in the public schools to children of the same age” —though naturally VaiVai has adapted it with her own twist: Cameren was reading The Mis-education of the Negro by the black historian Carter G. Woodson, a seminal work on the destructive impact of America’s educational system on black students.