Diritto di voto e alfabetizzazione. Bernice Robinson e le Citizenship Schools delle Sea Islands


  • Nadia Venturini




American literature, Bernice Robinson


American historiography in the last two decades has been paying growing attention to the contribution of women to the African American Freedom Struggle. Women were often the main agents in grassroots experiences, delving on their deep connections to local communities, where they were involved on many levels, including friendship networks or church activities. The experience of Bernice Robinson (1914-1994) is telling in that line: after leaving her native Charleston in her youth, she returned after the war, due to family obligations, carrying the experience of integrated life in New York. She relied on the two trades she had learned in New York, as a seamstress and beautician. She was an active member of NAACP, besides being the cousin of a more widely known activist, Septima P. Clark, who had been fired from her position as a teacher because of NAACP membership. Clark first took her cousin to the interracial Highlander Folkschool, Tennessee, along with an activist from Johns Island, Esau Jenkins. This experience brought to a bold experiment in the education of illiterate adults in the Sea Islands, stretching along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia: the site of an outstanding grassroots experiment in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Basic literacy for adults was taught, with the aim of getting them registered for voting, starting with a small class in January 1957, when the literacy test was still the main instrument for excluding African American Southerners from the ballots. Robinson accepted to be a non-professional teacher on the Sea Islands, while keeping her business running in Charleston. She successfully developed original methods for teaching adults. Within a few years she became a full-time activist, holding workshops around the South, cooperating with both SCLC and SNCC. The Citizenship Schools project in 1961 was administered by SCLC, and it spread in the whole South, totaling 900 classes led by non-professional teachers, coordinated by Clark, and 700.000 registrations before VRA was enacted. After the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Robinson’s experience proved valuable for other organizations involved in literacy projects for migrants. Her personality is a good example of the way in which Southern African American women could develop strategies for civil rights in a very difficult political context, still widely imbued with male chauvinism.


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ARCAAHC-b: ARCAAHC, Bernice V. Robinson Papers, B1, F6, interview by E. Wigginton, n.d.

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