Funny how memories circle back on you, reminding you of treasured moments, especially those spent with advocates of freedom and justice. I was researching the legacy of a photographer and came upon a photo of Carolyn and Arthur Reese, two dedicated school teachers from Detroit. The photo of them was taken in 1964 in Hattiesburg, Miss., where they had gone to volunteer as civil rights workers. In the photo, they are surrounded by a group of young white men and women who were listening intently to the couple on how to conduct themselves as they registered people to vote.
A few days later, I got a call from Dr. Michael Simanga, the writer and activist, and while recounting to him my rediscovery of the Reeses, I thought about his parents, who, in many respects were like the Reese couple in their commitment to the fight against racism and discrimination during their active years in Detroit.
I am not sure where the Reeses are today, and both Richard and Mama Imani Humphrey are with the ancestors. When Michael’s book, “No One Can Be at Peace Unless They Have Freedom,” arrived, as promised, one of his essays was devoted to his mother, and it brought back days when she and her husband were among Detroit’s most consistent, unwavering educators and freedom fighters.
Let me focus here on Imani Humphrey, and perhaps in the coming days Richard and Reeses will get their turns in the Classroom. It is from Michael’s remembrance that we get a portion of his mother’s remarkable biography.
She was born in Detroit March 8, 1932. She was the middle daughter among five girls born to working-class parents who moved to Inkster, a small Black community on the outskirts of Detroit. It was at Inkster High School that she met her life partner, Richard Adisa Humphrey Jr., who predeceased her., and they were a formidable couple and highly respected across the nation for their relentless Black nationalism and commitment to family values.
In rapid succession she graduated from Inkster High, earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Detroit and her master’s degree from Wayne State University, with majors in English and literature. She wrote the first curriculum for African-American literature in the Detroit public school system, and she was an invaluable consultant to student activists at Wayne State University in their demand for Black Studies.
“She imbued us with a resolve not to buckle under the university’s power and resistance,” one of the students recalled, “and from her words and advice we were able to accomplish and get many of the demands we made. She was such a generous and courageous visionary.”
Besides achieving her goal to become a teacher, Humphrey was a tireless community organizer and eventually directed youth programs for the City of Detroit, particularly during Mayor Coleman Young’s administration. As her son recalls, she “was a pioneer in the African Centered Education Movement, and developed ‘The Affirmative Learning Method,’ a pedagogical theory and practice for teaching through honoring the culture, identity and genius of Black children.”
She was an unstinting worker in the building of independent Black institutions and subsequently chaired the board of Ujima School and a school founded by her son other activists. From her experience in the public school system and in community-based education programs, she created Aisha Shule (KiSwahili for School of Life) and the W.E.B. DuBois Preparatory Academy.
“Over a 40-year period,” her son wrote, “several thousand students attended K-12 in those institutions as both private and independent charter schools. She was also a teacher of teachers, including her oldest daughter, Holly Hasina Murphy, who worked closely with her in building affirmative schools and movement.”
As a mentor to numerous teachers, administrators and education activists, she inspired and expanded the ranks of activist-educators dedicated to excellence in African-American education, culture and empowerment. For five decades, together with her older sister, Malkia Brantuo, and several other activist women, including Enowoyi Hill and Gloria Aneb House, she sought to influence the transformation of education for Detroit’s Black children.
Humphrey was an advocate of Black culture and arts, and cultivated numerous young artists, including her daughter, singer-songwriter Leesa Richards, and independent scholars such as her eldest son, Mosi Humphrey. The institutions she created often housed conferences, community meetings and celebrations and were hubs of community engagement and empowerment.
She was a founder of Black Women Aware and active in the anti-apartheid movement, African Liberation Day, the National and Michigan Black Political Assemblies, the Black Women’s United Front, the Council of Independent Black Institutions, the Detroit Council of Elders and many community and national organizations. She was a dedicated member of Fellowship Chapel in Detroit and served for many years as a worship leader. Over the course of her career, she taught in the Detroit Public Schools, Wayne County Community College and Wayne State University and also consulted on education and institutional development.
Among her publications is “First Fruits: The Family Guide to Celebrating Kwanzaa.” The book, published by Third World Press, which published her son’s books, offers a definitive role of the family’s participation in this celebration and its rituals, and few have written with as much passionate authority on this annual event and spiritual implications. Several years ago, when a young member of her circle, Jabari Jordan, 18, was taken from the community, Imani was there to offer words of consolation and the importance of honoring the rite of passage.
Mama Imani Humphrey joined the ancestors on her birthday March 8, 2016. She was 84.