Amber O’Neal Johnston likes to say, “In my house, Charlotte Mason has an Afro.”
Johnston is among generations of homeschooling parents inspired by the 19th-century Christian educator. She believes in Mason’s philosophy that children should be treated as full-fledged people and that educators cooperate with God to create a learning environment rich with books, nature, experiences, and ideas.
But as Johnston claimed her Black heritage over the years, things changed. Her once “bone straight” hair is now worn natural. “It’s big. And I love it,” she said during a Zoom interview, showing off a heavy mass of curls behind a white and patterned headband.
Johnston wants her four kids to claim and love their Blackness too—but she noticed how the books on Charlotte Mason reading lists, full of white authors writing about white characters and history, taught a different lesson.
It was her eldest daughter who shifted Johnston’s view when she remarked, “You said we study important things at school. We study only white people.”
Johnston was stunned.
Since then, the homeschooling mom has worked to bring Black figures and history into the Charlotte Mason approach. She became a board member for the Charlotte Mason Institute, taking the Victorian woman’s philosophy and infusing a “necessary dose of Blackness into it.”
Five years ago, Johnston started a group in the Atlanta area for homeschooling families of Black children. Her website—HeritageMom.com, named for children being a heritage from the Lord in Psalm 127:3—is now a popular destination for Charlotte Mason families and other homeschoolers seeking resources such as multicultural hymn studies and themed lesson guides on African and African American history.
Homeschooling took off during the pandemic. Between spring and fall 2020, homeschooling rates doubled, from 5 to 11 percent, according to US Census Bureau surveys. The rate grew fastest among Black families, up more than fivefold from 3 percent to 16 percent.
The interest in homeschooling among Black families and other families of color reflects a dissatisfaction with traditional schools that simmered even before COVID-19, according to Cheryl Fields-Smith, a University of Georgia professor who has been studying Black homeschoolers since 2006.
Fields-Smith looked at how religion influenced the homeschooling journeys of African Americans in a study involving two dozen families. She found that fewer parents expressed the idea that “God told me to homeschool” or “This is what Christian families do,” and more believed that their faith empowered them to homeschool once the decision was made.
“There are first-choicers, who know from birth that they are homeschooling, and second-choicers, who have tried one, two, three, or four traditional schools and then decided to homeschool,” Fields-Smith said.
“It becomes a place that’s more viable because of the way school has become.”
Black families, she said, often feel conflicted when leaving the public school system, which the Black community has fought so hard to have equal access to.
“Brown v. Board, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, desegregation cases, sit-ins, marches all played a significant role drawing societal attention on inequities in education. Is it every Black person’s responsibility to continue in this struggle, even when many do not believe that equitable education will ever be attainable in public schools?” Fields-Smith cowrote in The Urban Review.
In public and private schools, Black parents continue to worry about unequal treatment, including their kids getting passed over for gifted classes, over-referred to remedial education, and labeled as troublemakers.
For decades, the stereotype of homeschooling was white evangelicals educating in a family setting and teaching biblically shaped lessons from outlets like Abeka and Bob Jones. But much of the recent growth in homeschooling comes from nonreligious families or those whose motivations don’t fit the stereotype.
For many Black Christian families choosing to homeschool today, traditional evangelical curricula can lack the racial diversity and cultural awareness they’d like in their kids’ education. But they still want to integrate their faith. So they’re left in a position like Johnston’s—challenging, adapting, and creating curricula that meets their families’ needs. And as they do so, they’re redefining the homeschool movement itself.
Delina Pryce McPhaull, a Christian, Afro-Latina homeschooling mom in Dallas, also had to think outside of the homeschool boxes as she taught her three children a different perspective on history.
As McPhaull taught her children from a boxed curriculum—which provides all the textbooks, teacher guides, worksheets, and activities—she was also leading a Be the Bridge racial reconciliation group with women from her Bible Study Fellowship.
In the group, McPhaull studied Reconstruction for the first time. She saw more clearly the through-line between those policies, Jim Crow laws, and current racial disparities. It prompted her to see the gaps in her children’s history lessons. At first, she supplemented with other books. Eventually, she wasn’t using the original curriculum at all.
In Christian homeschool curricula, history lessons especially are “riddled with ‘God is on our side’ talk,” McPhaull said. She refused to have her kids sing Americana songs like “Dixie” and “Cotton Needs Pickin’ ” and couldn’t stomach textbook claims that God ordained the US government despite its atrocities against the country’s indigenous peoples.
She took her margin notes and supplemental resources and created Oh Freedom!, a socially conscious homeschool history curriculum centering African American, indigenous, and immigrant perspectives. She also saw prayer and reflection as critical to helping children digest the difficult topics.
“It was important for my kids to understand we were not just studying mess but where God was in the mess,” McPhaull said. “Not in the gross way that justifies, saying, ‘Well this must have been what God planned.’ I wanted them to come out of learning this hard history not with a hard heart … but knowing the ways God worked in those situations for particular people. How they used their faith to carry them forward and build resistance and strength.”
McPhaull always started her own history lessons with her kids by using the ACTS method (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication). Her original curriculum included time for prayer throughout; the prayer guide is now offered as a supplement to make the material accessible to secular homeschoolers.
In the prayer supplement, McPhaull includes several sets of prompts using the acronym WOKE. One, for example, is: Worship (Remember who God is), Own (Own the ways you’ve fallen short), Kindle (Ask God to ignite desire to care about issues that are important), and Enjoy (Give thanks to God for the things you enjoy).
Oh Freedom! launched in 2019 with a “Woke Homeschooling” Facebook group, which had over 3,000 members. With the increase in pandemic homeschoolers and the racial reckoning set off by George Floyd’s killing in May 2020, the group surged to over 13,000 members, many of whom are white parents hoping to diversify their lessons.
But the growing interest in racially diverse education has also elicited a conservative backlash, with critics using terms like social justice, critical race theory (CRT), and woke to decry such efforts.
“Though I hear from the people who think woke is a four-letter word, I don’t regret using it to name my business,” McPhaull said. “I think it’s actually a great filter. Those who are at a place where they want to start teaching their kids the truth about history won’t be offended by the word woke.”
“The opposite of woke,” she points out, “is asleep.”
In 2019, CT published a cover story on classical Christian homeschoolers moving away from a separationist, homestead mentality toward deeper engagement with society as “salt and light.” The stories of Black homeschoolers show that this kind of engagement has been happening all along.
Before the pandemic, a visitor might have wandered into Castle Rock Community Church in New Orleans and seen a handful of Black children around a cinder-block wall with pictures of a brown-skinned Zeus, Athena, Aphrodite, Apollo, and Poseidon on a large sheet of white paper.
A Black woman wearing red ball-stud earrings prompts, “Zeus would be as strong as an ...”
“Ox!” one child yells.
“Oak tree!” another says.
“That doesn’t make no sense, though,” another student interjects.
The class, captured in a teacher training video, is part of Nyansa Classical Community. The classical Christian program features Black and brown images of classical figures and draws on the Black intellectual tradition.
Angel Parham, a sociology professor now at the University of Virginia, founded the program in her early years of doing classical homeschooling with her own children.
Parham saw neighbors in her working-class Black community in New Orleans dissatisfied with their education options and asked, with another homeschooling mom, “What can we do to make this more available?” They started Nyansa, which means “wisdom” in the West African Akan language, as an afterschool program.
When the pandemic shut everything down, Parham translated the material into a 20-week curriculum, adaptable for homeschooling or private schools, featuring a different virtue each week.
A unit on love opens with the story of the Greek goddess Demeter, who lost her daughter Persephone to the underworld god Hades. Jonathan and David’s friendship in 1 Samuel is recounted among the biblical examples of love. African American Lt. John Fox’s story of self-sacrifice in World War II is offered as a modern-day window into the virtue.
Parham describes the Nyansa curriculum as accessible, practical, and liberating. “It’s never been the case that the classical texts are only meant for the white European community,” she said. “It has been the case that the list of texts studied has been quite limited.”
Parham, who grew up Baptist, cites the flourishing of Arabic science in Baghdad in the Middle Ages as an example of non-European engagement with Greek philosophy. She also points out that many African American intellectuals, such as Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King Jr., were classically educated. “They often turned to classical texts and founding American documents to make the argument for their liberation.”
The Nyansa curriculum is now being piloted at several private schools, and Parham expects to make it widely available soon.
“We need to think beyond our own families,” Parham said, dreaming about churches one day offering Nyansa as an after-school program. “There are ways that homeschoolers can enrich the larger conversation on education and reach out beyond themselves.”
In 2016, Johnston started Heritage Homeschoolers with four other families in the Atlanta suburbs. It was her effort to create a homeschooling community where her children and other Black children could see their ethnic heritage mirrored and valued. The group has grown to over 100 families, and a third are new to homeschooling.
Johnston attended public schools; her parents were public-school principals. When her daughters were preschool age, she kept being drawn to the “magical childhood” created by families she knew who homeschooled. Johnston now sees it as God’s way of putting the option before her.
When she began Heritage Homeschoolers, she felt the tension between using the network to promote Black heritage in homeschooling or to promote Black heritage only among Christian families.
“Am I going to require a signed statement of faith like so many groups in my area?” Johnston asked. “If I don’t, I’m not seen as a woman of faith. If I do, I’m effectively cutting off people who fall within the initial vision of the group.”
Fellow “die-hard Jesus lovers” spoke up against requiring Christian commitments, saying they didn’t “want to be part of something that further splinters the Black community” and that allowing a broader range of participants would give them the chance to be “hands, feet, and light.”
So Heritage Homeschoolers is not explicitly Christian, though members still overwhelmingly identify as such. Johnston chose a core team to run hospitality, social media, and other aspects of the group. They are committed believers who pray for each other and the other moms.
Their group meets for camping trips, poetry readings, father-daughter dances, holiday celebrations, book clubs, and more. They don’t pray out loud unless they’re certain all members in attendance are believers, and they don’t proselytize. But the conflict resolution plan in their handbook is taken directly from Matthew 18:15–22. If a member can’t pay dues, they are welcomed without shame or consequence.
“[Our faith] flavors all that we do while still allowing us to embrace families of all or no faith backgrounds,” said Johnston, who recently wrote A Place to Belong: Celebrating Diversity and Kinship in the Home and Beyond.
Homeschooling in Black communities tends to be concentrated among families with higher education levels and income. However, longtime observers are seeing wider demographics, including more working mothers, single mothers, and even grandmothers, start to homeschool—among all ethnicities.
Elle Cole, host of the Cleverly Changing podcast, dedicated a season of the show to the ways parents can make homeschooling work while still bringing in an income. Episodes included “Secrets of a Mom Boss” and “Finance and Entrepreneurship.”
Johnston’s helping families in her community think through creative possibilities. “You have 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Homeschooling doesn’t have to happen between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m.,” she tells them.
The pandemic opened up more options with more flexible work schedules for some working parents, but Johnston said, “We’re getting back to a village mentality” to help more families take part.
For example, she supervises a kid in their local group two days a week while his mother works. Those who have the resources to homeschool, she said, can ask, “How can we collectively support families who can’t do it on their own?”
oday, many more resources exist for Christian families of color and homeschoolers looking to include diverse perspectives. There are groups like The Melanin Village and Black Family Home Educators and Scholars (cofounded by Fields-Smith) and book lists featuring authors and characters of color. Charlotte Mason for All, a podcast hosted by five women of color, aims to make Mason’s philosophy accessible “to every culture, country, and community.”
But many of the recent innovations come from parents creating resources to fill their particular needs—Black moms like Johnston and McPhaull and Parham—rather than from major homeschooling organizations intentionally looking to improve their offerings.
“I have been very intimately formed by and loved individuals in white conservative evangelical spaces,” said Lainna Callentine, a former ER physician turned homeschool mom and science curriculum author. “When I started calling out some of the loss of cultural awareness in those spaces, saying, ‘This is wounding me. Let’s have a conversation,’ those conversations were never well-received.”
Callentine served for five years as the only Black woman on what was then the otherwise all white, male board of Parental Rights, a group of national homeschooling leaders concerned about government encroachment.
Leaders at the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), founded by evangelical homeschooling advocate and lawyer Michael Farris, know of these concerns. “We are definitely reaching out. To the extent that we can help their voices be heard and included, we want to do that,” said vice president James Mason, who also leads Parental Rights.
The HSLDA has recently hired Spanish-speaking consultants to connect with the growing Hispanic homeschooling community and started offering workshops geared toward Black, Latino, and other minority groups, said media relations director Sandra Kim. Last year they offered 673 compassion grants, averaging $830 each, to lower-income families who are privately homeschooling.
Susan Seay, a Black mom of seven with 20 years of homeschooling experience, has advocated that state and national conferences include more women and people of color in their speaker lineups but says she has been met with resistance.
“You are sending a message that homeschooling is white, Christian, and exclusive,” said Seay, who hosts a homeschooling podcast called Mentor for Moms. “But at the same time, you’re saying words out of your mouth that it is available to all parents and everybody can do it.”
Callentine said she wanted to be able to connect conservative white homeschooling communities and underserved communities of color, but said she heard fellow leaders label the groups she wanted to include as “Democrats,” “liberals,” and “unreachable.”
The tensions around diversity and race in education have gotten even more divisive among Christian conservatives since then, with recent debates taking off over social justice and CRT. At the 2021 HSLDA conference, one session was titled “Against Critical Theory’s Onslaught: How to Respond to its Manifestation in Critical Race Theory and the Transgender Ideology.”
Callentine, for her part, is baffled. “I scratch my head when I see individuals so consumed with CRT yet not have an interest in their brothers and sisters of color.”
or many Black families, a roadblock to homeschooling is confidence. They don’t see people who look like them homeschooling or in the curricula. They’re worried about leaving public education, which is held up in Black communities as a form of uplift.
Once they make the choice, they often feel isolated as the only families of color among white evangelical homechoolers—a factor in why Johnston, McPhaull, and others formed spaces for fellow Black families.
The new curricula and groups might seem like a departure from traditional Christian homeschooling. But their necessity for families of color show that the biblical truth that all people are made in God’s image hasn’t been applied consistently in evangelical homeschooling circles.
As Black families write their stories into homeschooling curricula, they make room not only for themselves, but for everyone.
“I’m hopeful,” Callentine said, “that those coming in will continue to grow in numbers and voice to show the beautiful diversity of God’s kingdom.”
Liuan Huska is a freelance journalist and the author of Hurting Yet Whole.
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