Ujamaa Shule, the first and oldest independent African-centered school in the U.S. will soon commemorate 54 years of existence. For weeks, school officials have been in the throes of a crowdfunding campaign geared toward building renovations.
The school, located in the Shaw neighborhood, has caught the eye of developers in recent years. That’s why Ujamaa Shule’s founder and director, Dr. El Senzengakulu Zulu, affectionately known as Baba Zulu, has asked that 35,000 people of African descent living in the U.S. contribute at least $15 apiece to fund much-needed repairs.
In 1968, Zulu, a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, launched Ujamaa Shule with two others to foster Black youth’s academic fortitude and African identity. He touted African-centered education as the only means by which youth can overcome obstacles and collectively work in the interest of the African Diaspora.
To ensure that Ujamaa Shule remained true to its mission, Zulu has refused financial support from non-African corporations and the D.C. government, even as other African-centered schools received funds and transitioned into public charter schools.
“Our school is based on Pan-African Nationalist ideology. We believe in separate lives and doing for self,” Zulu said. “There have been several charter schools that set up [their programs] similar to us and did an excellent job. Because they’ve done that, the government shut them down but they can’t do that to us.”
Since its inception, Ujamaa Shule has not only boosted its students’ reading and math aptitude but introduced them to the African continent and historical figures who fought for the advancement of African people across the globe. Alumni have entered various career paths including education, engineering, law and entertainment.
Students at Ujamaa Shule wear African clothing, take on indigenous African names, learn Kiswahili and Zulu languages and engage in rigorous coursework that Zulu said makes them college and career ready by the time they reach their teen years.
Nightly assignments, which students are required to complete with family members, often involve watching local and national news and following the developments in an African country of the student’s choosing. Students are also required to complete papers about prominent African ancestors, some of whom have been painted on the walls of the school, located on Q Street between 8th and 9th streets in Northwest.
Abena Bonsu, a 10-year-old Ujamaa Shule student who’s currently taking college-equivalent coursework, said the school continues to help her pursue her dream of entering the science field and speaking on behalf of African people in the U.S. and around the world.
“I like learning about African history and heritage and science and math,” Abena said. “In science I’ve been learning about elements, matter, nature and natural disasters. I want to help African people [just like] Kwame Nkrumah, Malcolm X and Denmark Vessey [who] inspire me.”
Osei Dinizulu, a 14-year-old student, echoed Abena’s sentiments. In addition to his school work, Osei showcases his talent as an African drummer at public events, including a recent appearance at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“I feel like I’m learning and excelling more,” Osei said. “My peers in other schools aren’t learning all that they should and they’re not getting an African-centered perspective. Ujamaa has helped put me in a place where I can see what I can contribute to African society.”
Over the years, running Ujamaa Shule has become a family affair.
Akina Zulu, one of elder Zulu’s six children who’s known as Mama Akina, has served as an English, social studies and visual arts teacher for 25 years. She said her greatest reward lies in interacting with the young people who teach her as much as she teaches them.
“I’m able to lay a foundation they can carry for the rest of their lives,” Mama Akina said. “[It’s good] to have them [go on] and receive their graduate degrees and [hear] parents thanking me. African-centered education can go as far as African people can go. The more we’re pushed, the better we will be.”
Harold Bartrum, a teacher and parent of three Ujamaa Shule alumni, said he enjoys working in a Diasporic African community and watching students progress in an environment without limits. With African-centered education, he said, there’s always potential for growth.
“Students can progress based on how quickly they develop. It gives them a challenge [and] they try to accomplish a goal for themselves rather than what the government wants,” said Bartrum, an Ujamaa math and science teacher of more than 30 years. “Age is not a limitation.”
Ujamaa Shule is accepting contributions via Cash App ($UjamaaSchool) and by check or money order that can be sent to 1554 8th Street NW, Washington, DC 20001.