A Series of Discussions with African American Leaders Who Played Key Roles in the African Freedom Struggle Part 1: The New Ark School (NAS)
Often, when we discuss the African freedom struggles during the 1960s and 1970s, the discussion centers around the struggles, achievements, and people who were active in the Civil Rights Movement. During the same time, there were many other movements. One was the Black Power Movement. A number of leaders in that movement remain unsung heroes. In the following articles I will present twelve (12) African Americans Leaders in two parts. The first part will be a summary of their organization. The second part will be an interview with one of their leaders. First up is the New Ark School and a discussion with co-founder, Brother Bob Dixon (Akendole).
The New Ark School was a grassroots community organization that opened its doors in 1970 following the 1967 rebellion and Black Power Conference in Newark, New Jersey. The location of the school was the Central Ward in Newark, where the rebellion occurred. In that area, there was a concentration of high-rise 17-story apartments for low-income residents called “projects.” The majority of the adult residents in the apartments were high school dropouts. Crime was a significant problem in the area. It was so severe that, because of safety concerns, law enforcement officers often refused to enter the dwellings when in pursuit of someone who had just committed a crime. The New Ark School emerged out of a movement to gain community control of the public schools and social services agencies that served their community, and to reduce the violence in the area. The mission of the school was to identify and mentor indigenous leaders so they would have a greater voice in their community. The creation and expansion of program services at the school were driven by the needs of the population served. All programs services were provided free to residents. The first program the school offered was a high school equivalency (GED) program for high school dropouts. Many of the students that attended the classes were parents. They frequently missed classes because they did not have anyone to watch their children or funds to pay a childcare provider. To address the issue of childcare, the school established an early childhood learning center for their children. Because a significant number of students who enrolled in the high school equivalency program did not read at a high school equivalency (7th grade) level, they had difficulty completing the program. To address this problem, an adult basic education program for adults that functioned at a 5th grade reading level was established. Students, who needed it, could then begin in the ABE program, transition to the GED program, and graduate by successfully taking the GED test. The eligibility criteria for acceptance in the early childhood learning program was expanded to include all income-eligible children in the neighborhood because of the great need for childcare in the area. The childcare program subsequently expanded to include a primary school and a before and after school program for school age children. The after school program served a number of students who were referred to the program by the public schools because of behavior problems. This program became a day camp program that included both residential and non-residential components during the summer months. The school soon expanded and opened a residential treatment facility for teenage youth who had been diagnosed as socially maladjusted or emotionally disturbed. The majority of the youth were referred by a youth center, which was a prison for adjudicated youth. The two remaining initiatives of the school were continuing education classes for adults such as photography classes, martial arts, African dance, and nutrition classes; and, community education such as an annual Marcus Garvey festival to enhance awareness in Newark. Based on its development and expansion, it is apparent that the New Ark School responded to Black needs in Newark from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Many of the independent Black schools that emerged during the period were managed by umbrella organizations (such as the Chad School by the Black Youth Organization and the African Free School by the Committee for Unified NewArk). This was not true for the New Ark School. The school, however, was led by Black Power activists who established an informal cadre. The co-leaders of the School were Robert Dixon and Kennedy Wilson. Other members of the cadre included Juanita Wilson, Jeannette Robinson, Kinaya Sokoya (me), and John Wilson. Kennedy Wilson and Robert Dixon were responsible for development; Jeannette Robinson oversaw the administrative and development functions of the School; Juanita Wilson and I were responsible for program development and implementation, and John Wilson was in charge of property maintenance and procurement. Four of the individuals above - Kennedy Wilson, Robert Dixon, Jeannette Robinson, and I served as executive directors during the life of the school. One by one, members of the cadre resigned to pursue other interests (e.g. higher education). It was difficult to find replacements that had the same passion and commitment to the School. The last person in the cadre left the school in 1982. Unfortunately, the individuals who followed us were unable to manage the grants that were the life-blood of the school and, in 1987, the school closed due to lack of funding (Sokoya, 2013).
A Discussion with Robert Dixon (Akendole): Co-founder of the New Ark School
1. What are your memories of the Black Power Movement during this period?
To me, the 60s meant the riots in Newark and the rest of the country and started me on a journey to try to make things better for the people in the community where the New Ark School was started. I think it's important to understand the starting of the New Ark Program. It was through the Department of Community Affairs that a lady named Katherine Evilepski and a priest named Robert Ulesky, started a program of para-professionals. They established three schools - one in Newark, one in Jersey City, and one in New Brunswick using paraprofessionals to run the programs. New Ark School started under the leadership of Lawrence Holder, a young lady named Jean Johnson, and me. The New Ark School started out as a high school equivalency program to deal with dropouts from the Newark public school system. We started with 50 students. We registered them in the GED program and prepared them to take entrance exams for colleges. The program was successful that first year and when we saw the need to expand the program because of the many problems that were in the community, the School was transformed from a high school equivalency program to a multi-faceted resource center. This changed the direction of the School tremendously. It became a cultural entity providing all kinds of services for the people in the community – jobs; we provided information about sickle cell anemia, we got our people tested for that. We expected our board through a banker and Morris, a successful merchant, to help us and give us more credibility. That's some of the things that started the Program.
2. Please share any information you have on the goals and plans emanating from the Black Power Conference of 1967 that took place in Newark, New Jersey.
I didn’t attend. I wasn't on board in 1967. We came into existence in September 1970. I was working in the post office at the time and I left the post office to work full time as a mathematics and reading comprehension teacher.
3. Were you active with any organizations and, if so, what organization(s), in what capacity, and for what period of time?
Lawrence Holder was the first director (of New Ark School). Lawrence got the opportunity to go to Brown (University) and after a year (at New Ark), he said, "I'm out of here, man. You got it." I said, “Got what?” He said, “You got this program.” I had no idea of where to go with this. And so, he gave me some information about getting an accountant to make sure all of the money was accounted for. Every time, I spent a dime, put a receipt in the bag and at the end of the month, take the bag to the accountant. And, when the people came, and they would come, they going to check on what I did with the money. And so, we hired an accountant. We sent them to him to answer their questions. I did that and he went about his business. After the first year that I ran the program, we got it funded again. Kennedy Wilson was out of work and he passed by the school one day looking for a job and I said, "What can you do?" He said, “I've got some administrative skills,” which I needed. So, he came in and after he looked at our files and all of the letters of commendations we had received, he said, “You have, a gold mine here, man, and I can help.” So I hired him and gave him half the money - of what I made, and created a spot for him. We got involved with CFUN (Committee for Unified Newark) and Amiri Baraka for help to develop a whole cultural stream for those that would come through our doors. We changed the concept of the New Ark School by adding a cultural aspect to the educational projects we had when we first started. We then got involved with Don Saunders and the program that he conducted for AT&T, Bell Labs. Some of their staff used to come to the school for training. The purpose of the program was to raise the consciousness of White people in the corporate arena so they would provide upward mobility for Blacks in their company by opening doors for them to go from the mail room to management positions. The program came out of a consent decree that came out of Washington. Don Saunders and Tim Harvey were instrumental in partnering with the New Ark School to provide a vehicle when these people, these directors and other managers from AT&T, would come to Newark as a part of their experience. We would take them and show them around the city of Newark, the destruction of the city, show them the problems that were created through neglect of the needs of the people. They had a different outlook because they had never experienced the Black experience. Many of them were coming from different parts of the country to AT&T and they had no knowledge of the Black experience. So, Tim and Don used the New Ark School as a vehicle to enlighten them on the problems faced in Black communities all over the country. We were just a prototype of the struggle that Black people were facing and the challenges that we had to overcome during the time and struggles after the riots.
We contacted Leon Moore, Founder of the Chad School, and Milt Campbell. They became a part of our cultural expansion. We got involved with them and they helped us tremendously in and providing information with regards to our child care program. They helped us put together a program to get the parents more involved in helping to shape the direction for the children. So, Chad was very helpful to us. Prudential (Insurance Company) provided some money to help us go forward. Also the Victoria Foundation gave us money in the initial years of the program. There was a lot of involvement from the corporate section and we received a stipend from AT&T for their participation in our program. Hoffman La Roche gave us a lot of equipment for our science laboratory.
4. What global events influenced the formation and activities of the New Ark School?
The Black Nationalist movement that was prevalent in Africa was our source of inspiration. The Black Nationalist movement (in the US) came through Amiri Baraka. We were tied to him. During the weekends, New Ark prepared flyers that went out to the community to help get the people ready to go out and vote. That was the part of the school that got politically involved in waking up the community to the power of the community - the power of the people. The students of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Stokely Carmichael, and all these organizations were coming to the forefront and were driving the direction of the Black community throughout the country. It changed the way people were thinking. Activists wore dashikis and had big afros. The lifestyle and thought patterns (of Black people) were changed in the big cities and throughout the country during that time.
5. What were the strengths and challenges of the New Ark School?
New Ark’s High School Equivalency Program sent all of its students to college the first year. There were so many things going on. Kids were dropping out of school at such a tremendous rate and there was no place for them to go. That's what sparked the State not to limit itself to using professional teachers but also using paraprofessionals that had potential skills. Lawrence was the one with the degree. It was initially an organization run by paraprofessionals.
The one time we had a problem or the potential for a problem was when men from the State came to the School and saw these Black images, Black murals and photographs in the child care center where the big room was downstairs and the hallway going up the stairs from the first to the second floor. They questioned whether White children or people were allowed to come to the School. We had an answer for that. “Yeah, they could come but they didn't want to. Because, where we were located, they were afraid.” One of them said there were all of these Black people on the walls and that’s not allowed by the State. So I said, “Come on outside." We went outside and he looked around. I asked him, "How many people do you see that look like you?"
6. What were the accomplishments of the New Ark School?
When the public school teachers went out on strike, we took our students and sent them over to the ___________ School. We were there with the kids that would come to school during the strike. We got a big write up in the paper about that. The other programs (that were created in two other cities) folded after one year but we survived after the initial year and we got favor because we were successful in getting all of our students into college. The crown of our success was Bebee Wilson. She went to NYU, got a full scholarship, and changed her masters degree as a result of her starting and going to the New Ark School. She was the great success. She came back and worked in the child care center at the New Ark. She was New Ark's first student.
We raised the consciousness of Whites from Bell Laboratories. We took them on tours. We would walk down Springfield Avenue to Sidney's Restaurant for lunch. They would stop at the door (of the restaurant) and we said we are going to go in here. And we would say, “Come in. Come on in.” They were afraid. We made sure they ordered food. Sidneys sold pastrami and roast beef sandwiches. The food was excellent. I would make them all pay and leave a big tip. They would sit there shaking in their boots and were very grateful to us for protecting them. It was an eye-opener for a lot of them.
New Ark Prep (a residential center) was an accomplishment that was established by the New Ark School. One thing that helped us was the New Ark School was the first organization in Newark that was allowed to go into the youth (detention center) to counsel the juveniles that were there. We were the first organization that was allowed to take the kids and... They (the detention center) provided the students for the New Ark Prep - the Youth House in Newark. They came out of the system. They were a step away from going to jail. They were considered incorrigible. We had 20 boys and 20 girls. The colleges were open to receive students coming out of informal institutional environments and giving them an opportunity to go further in their education. This was based on the fact that the youth went to a community school, an alternative school and showed an aptitude to do better. They were encouraged to do better and raised their self-esteem to the point where they would go out and achieve what the system said they couldn't.
We had a traveling summer program and after school program. We were able to take the kids out of Newark to the beach and we put them on a ferry. We went to a farm in upstate New York and down to Wall Street. We took them to the Yoruba Village in South Carolina. We took them to DC. I've been told that, “There is nothing out here now like the Newark School. “I heard that from Zakariah when I was interviewed by him on his radio program. Cheyenne still calls me. He came to an event. He is an artist. He opened an art gallery downtown in Newark. I am in touch with him. Every now and then I'll run into somebody. I ran into one of the students named George over in Newark. I was at a food place and he was there. I was talking to the fellow that was with me. George said, “Bob, this is me, George, from the New Ark School.” I remembered him and his friends coming to the School together. They were the second and third students at the School. He had a business selling perfumes and men's articles. His business was doing well. He said, "It's good to see you. Thanks for the experience." I'm grateful to know that people out there remember, and it's been 50 years.
7. What do you know about COINTELPRO?
I remember it vaguely. There's a brother from a church in Newark that's constantly bringing into the conversation COINTELPRO. It's to the point where they can pinpoint you anywhere in this country. It's down to showing your house and the inside of your house using satellites. We had (a few) problems with the FBI. There was a brother that was part of the Black Panther Party who came to the school. He didn't have a place to stay so I let him stay down in the basement to watch the building at night. The FBI showed up one Friday asking to speak to me. I wasn't there at the time. That Saturday, I was on my way to Bloomfield College to take some literature and let them know about the School. Rosetta went with me. She told me when went back to the School, "See that car across the street?” It had two White guys sitting in it. "Those are the guys who stopped by the School yesterday looking for you." I said, “Let me go see what they want.” I went over and knocked on the window. I said, “My name is Bob Dixon. I understand you guys were looking for me yesterday." He said, “We can't talk to you right now. We're undercover." Two White guys sitting in the community undercover. How can two White guys sit in the community and not be found out? They came back Monday. They showed me a bunch of photographs and asked if I knew any of the people in the photos. I said, "No, I don't know any of these guys." Then they gave me a card and went away. They watched us for a while. After about a month, they went away. We used to meet every morning at 6 o'clock.
There were about eight brothers: Kenny, myself, a brother from NY... I can't think of the names of the other brothers. But we would all meet and plan a strategy to launch the New Ark Prep program. We met every morning at 6 o'clock. And, you know how the police felt about a bunch of Black guys coming together. They would be watching us each morning. When we came in, I would always greet them, "How are you folks doing today?" That was to let them know that we were aware they were on their job.
8. What is the current status of the New Ark School?
It closed in 1986.
9. How did the activities of the New Ark School affect colleges and universities on campuses and in the community?
We were on Rutgers Advisory Board for their new students program. We served a few years on their Board. We had our own radio program on two stations - one in Newark (WNJR) and another on W... We would air a program on Saturday for an hour in the White community and air another program on Saturday for 15 minutes on the Black community station. So, the School got a lot of exposure through the media during those first four years. We would talk about programs that were part of the New Ark experience. Lloyd Henry (Ciuzi), developed the children's program that we aired. It was like a skit. After he came on board, we aired a program every week. He also worked with us over the summer in 1972. He added another dimension to the program. Brother Wabembe did the painting in the hallway.
10. Did the New Ark School’s activities affect the development of Black student organizations and, if so, how?
One brother who was a graduate of New Ark School was very political. He's the only one I actually remember. College students came in and volunteered through Essex County College when J. Harry Smith was the president of the college. He provided resources and had an open-door policy for the students at New Ark School. As many students as we sent with their GED completed, he would find space in the school for them to continue their education. J. Harry Smith was very important. He told me "Whatever you need, the college is available for you to just come and take advantage to the max of all of the resources we have.” “We got a lot of (first generation) students enrolled into that program. Dr. Jackson, the Dean of African Studies at Essex County College, became a member of our Board.
11. Did New Ark School’s activities affect the development of Black studies departments at higher education institutions and, if so, how?
I think New Ark had a lot to do with that because we talked about the Black Movement going forward and the significance of the Black leaders that were emerging through SNCC. We talked about H. Rap Brown. We formed a group called the New Ark Ensemble. We used to go around. Lawrence had written a lot of poems. We put his poems to music and we went out to sing revolution. We appeared on stage with Dick Gregory. We sang ...and he was a good speaker at that program. So the brother was what was happening. We used to go over to Keane College and rehearse. We had students from Keane College in our program.
12. Are you aware of any activities, programs, or benefits to higher education That resulted from the efforts of the New Ark School or other organizations in the Black Power Movement during the period from 1960 – 1980? Do they still exist today?
What developed from our involvement in Newark was a sense of togetherness of trying to achieve a common ground, a platform on which we could build more unity in the community. There were a lot of things happening that was so negative during the time of our struggle in Newark. We had to project a different kind of image. There was a lot of involvement all over Newark where different organizations were trying different kinds of services. We were able to bring them all together for the common good so whenever somebody Black had a need, they would call the New Ark School and we would direct them to resources. Talk about networking - we were on the ground floor. Now we talked about the change in clothing and change in attitude. That's been lost. That whole concept has been lost over the years. There's no more zeal and there's no more fire. It's like the fire has not gone out because there's still something to remember; but, for the most part, the Black community has gone backwards instead of going forward. We see that our children are without jobs, the education system is failing, and the curriculum that is being taught is not directed toward raising the consciousness of all people, including White and Black. By and large, the press, same thing we talked about. You don't find the struggle of Black people in the history books. Malcolm X, Farrakhan, and, Muhammad Ali; from a political perspective, they looked at as being very negative. The President of the US (Obama) is a whipping boy for the White establishment and they publicly denounce him and make him look like a fool. The walls on my basement have the slave narratives and so the question is how far have we come since 1863 as a people?
13. Are there other persons you feel would provide helpful information on this topic?
Most of the people that came through with me have gone on.
14. I am collecting information on the sequence of events leading to the development of the first Black student union and the first Black studies department at San Francisco State University. Are there experiences at other colleges or universities that you feel would be informative?
Seton Hall. Aaron Campbell ran the Black Studies Program at Seton Hall. We were able to go on campus and we would have permission to give some direction and help to get our students into their program. He's still around.
Epilogue: All of the members of the cadre at the New Ark School are now retired. Akendole Dixon continues to live in New Jersey. He is a pastor. Kennedy Wilson lives in the state of Washington, Jeannette Robinson lives in Georgia, Juanita Wilson lives in New Jersey, John Wilson lives in New York, and I live in Maryland. We all agree that our sojourn at the New Ark School was one of the best times in our lives. Black people still need organizations like this more than ever.