Booker T. Washington Is Smiling at New Haven
Reverend Eldren D. Morrison’s influence is almost heavenly. On Sundays, you will find him presiding over the activities of Shaw Temple A.M.E Zion Church in Smyrna, Georgia, 16 miles north of Atlanta, where he helps his congregation see the big picture of life—and all its mysteries.
He may reside in Georgia with his wife and two young children (Ava, 8 and Ian, 3), but his presence reaches New Haven, Connecticut, where he serves on the Booker T. Washington Academy (BTWA) Board of Directors as a co-founder. And if he has his way, he will put a Booker T. Washington Academy in every state to uplift kids and families.
It’s Saturday morning in early August 2022, and expected to be the fifth day over 90 degrees in Hartford, Connecticut—When I reach Reverend Morrison on the telephone in Georgia, we exchange greetings; his children can be heard in the background, oblivious to his telephone call. Morrison, 41, is the former pastor of Varick Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church on Dixwell Avenue in New Haven, where he served from 2007 to 2016,
Pastor Morrison was called to lead at a young age. Fresh out of high school at 18 years old and years before he would arrive in New Haven, the baby-faced pastor was asked to lead Warner Temple AME Zion Church in Lancaster, South Carolina, an hour south of Charlotte, North Carolina, with a population of less than 10,000. His family is from Lancaster, the county seat of Lancaster County.
This temporary assignment in Lancaster was supposed to last until they found a more seasoned pastor. After a few months of preaching to a congregation of initially five people, the audition was over, and he was anointed as the permanent pastor.
I just remember walking through the door on the first Sunday, and everyone kind of stopped and turned and looked at me, and that’s when the reality set in, this is on you and then you just kind of take it one step at a time and it worked out very well.
Reverend Morrison says, “I just remember walking through the door on the first Sunday, and everyone kind of stopped and turned and looked at me, and that’s when the reality set in, this is on you and then you just kind of take it one step at a time and it worked out very well.” He looks back fondly, realizing, “It was a blessing to me as well as to the people.”
His grandfather, Reverend R. A. Morrison Sr., the former Pastor of Salem A.M.E. Zion Church in Lancaster, SC, had ten children, but none of them went into the ministry. His influence would be there a generation later. Reverend Morrison’s parents raised him and his sister in the church.
“I date my call to the ministry around age 12,” says Reverend Morrison. “One of the largest influences on my life was my grandfather, who was at one point the oldest pastor at 85 in our congregation.” Reverend Morrison was the youngest at 18. Both had pastored in Lancaster.
After stops at Pleasant Hill A.M.E. Zion Church, Heath Springs, SC, Metropolitan A.M.E Zion Church, ‘The Mother Church of Zion Methodism in South Carolina,’ Chester, SC, and Liberty Hill A.M.E. Zion Church, Lake Wylie, SC, he arrived in New Haven.
Bishop George E. Battle Jr. appointed Reverend Morrison in late October 2007 as the pastor of Varick Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, the second oldest church in the A.M.E. Zion denomination, which was started in 1818.
With a population of 135,000, New Haven is the third largest city in the state, behind Bridgeport and Stamford. The city has been called the “Cultural Capital of Connecticut” for its museums, music venues and theaters. And with Yale University serving as a global beacon, the city attracts students from around the world, seeking what only an Ivy League school can bestow: prestige.
While there may be plenty to do there, New Haven can best be described as a poor city. Based on U.S. Census data, 25.2 percent of the population live in poverty, which is significantly above the 9.8 percent of people statewide who live below the poverty line. To put this in the proper context, at $78,833, Connecticut has the sixth highest median household income in the U.S.
In the beginning, in New Haven, things weren’t easy for Reverend Morrison. The church was foreclosed on twice during his first few months on the job. “We were really struggling and about to lose that property,” he says. He remembers “some folks saying they felt so sorry for me and some people thinking it really wasn’t the best decision.”
I enjoyed meeting people and being involved in the community.
Other challenges in the community during his nearly 10-year tenure included police brutality, homelessness, crime, food scarcity, and the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. They would get through it together. Storm clouds would dissipate, leading to bright skies. The congregation would grow from 200 to over 2,000 members and from one to three services on Sunday.
“I enjoyed the city itself and the people of the city,” Reverend Morrison says. “I enjoyed meeting people and being involved in the community. Some church members loved the fact that we really were so involved in the community, and others did not because it took a lot of time for me to be at different meetings, and it opened our church up—whatever issues were going on in the community became the issues of our church.”
Coming from the small town of Lake Wylie in South Carolina, a suburb of Charlotte, Reverend Morrison was impressed with the schools in New Haven—the city was in the process of a $1.66 billion, 46-school construction and renovation program that began in the late 1990s and continued for close to twenty years.
The issue of education would spill into the congregation after having conversations with parents and church members. At the time, the church had a summer enrichment program at Varick that grew. The congregation was familiar with education and expected that it could uplift people’s lives in the community, which was desperately needed.
On the surface, things looked fine in the schools, but Reverend Morrison was concerned and dug deeper. “Once I was able to take a tour of the schools, go inside, listen to some of the things that were going on,” he discovered several issues, from the “lack of energy” of teachers in some areas and “desire” in others.
Some teachers were afraid of students, and some students in the congregation were graduating years and years behind in reading and math comprehension. Reverend Morrison says, “those things kind of really worried me.” Something had to change.
Education was important to his congregation because many were active or retired teachers and administrators. They wanted educational options in the Dixwell and Newhallville neighborhoods. A Brandeis University study in 2021 ranked Newhallville as “Very Low” for overall child opportunity. In Newhallville and nearby Dixwell combined, 83 percent of children under 18 were considered low-income in 2017. Reverend Morrison began meeting with Dr. Reginald Mayo, then the superintendent of the New Haven Public Schools, for weekly breakfast meetings at the Greek Olive in the city.
Their discussions led to more conversations with teachers and community leaders. He spoke to Chaka Felder-McEntire, 44, who earned her doctorate in 2016; Dr. Belinda Carberry, who retired after spending four decades in the New Haven Public Schools system; Kanicka Ingram-Mann, executive director for human resources, Fairfield Public Schools, who is in her 40s; and Jesse Phillips, 39, the coordinator for inclusive growth for the New Haven Chamber of Commerce.
In mid-August, I call Dr. Chaka Felder-McEntire, who is clear when naming the co-founders of the BTWA. She describes starting a school as like starting a business. The names on the founding documents, she says, are Jesse Phillips, Reverend Eldren Morrison, Dr. Belinda Carberry, Kanicka Ingram-Mann (at the time Mann) and herself.
When she met Reverend Morrison, they clicked. She says Jesse Phillips, who worked at Varick from 2008 to 2017, had a similar experience with Reverend Morrison. The group of five began the process of seeking a charter from the Connecticut State Department of Education. Dr. Felder-McEntire, a counselor in the New Haven public schools at the time and now an associate principal in Naugatuck, remembers it as a long journey.
Dr. Felder-McEntire felt the group, which included some other educators, were “black sheep” because they were doing “something different” by going against the education establishment. It would be a long road ahead filled with disappointment.
Dr. Felder-McEntire recruited Kanicka Ingram-Mann. They met at Housatonic Community College, where she worked, and when Dr. Felder-McEntire was a guidance counselor at Bullard-Havens Technical High School in Bridgeport. The community college had programs to connect high-school students to new pathways.
I call Kanicka, who says, “We just bonded; we became friends.” Dr. Felder-McEntire told her about the school they wanted to open. “I don’t even know how I kind of got roped into it,” says Kanicka. Dr. Felder-McEntire wanted Kanicka to meet Reverend Morrison to talk about the school.
As Kanicka remembers, Reverend Morrison was interested in opening a Christian school. “So he had already been in the planning stages with some other folks, Jesse Phillips, Dr. Carberry and another member of the church.”
Community members didn’t want to go to their local public school, and private schools were too expensive. A Christian school would have to charge, which would leave out many of the families who wanted their kids to go to the school. The only option was to explore the charter school route, so Jesse Phillips and Dr. Felder-McEntire decided to consult their extensive connections across the state.
As the idea of the school was starting to take shape, Reverend Morrison remembers Dr. Felder-McEntire coming back to him a few months after discussing the proposed school name. “She asked me, ‘Pastor, what do you want to name the school?’ I was ‘like what!’” His voice is full of excitement, as if it was happening again. He liked the educational philosophy of Booker T. Washington, who died on November 15, 1915.
I don’t even know how I kind of got roped into it.
Dr. Felder-McEntire vaguely remembers asking Pastor Morrison what he wanted to name the school. “For me, personally, I have always been more of a Washington thinker [versus W.E.B Du Bois],” she says.
Reminiscing, Kanika describes it as an eye-opening experience. “I can say that for sure. We all knew what we wanted for the students. We knew the neighborhood that we wanted to serve. We just needed to figure out how we can do that and do it effectively and efficiently.”
Reverend Morrison is candid when he admits, “Some folks did not want to name the school Booker T. Washington” due to the controversy between him and Du Bois. “I was adamant that there would be no persons, especially those who are not African American, who were going to dictate what and who we lifted up in our history.”
During our telephone conversation, he mentioned a little-known fact that Booker T. Washington’s last public address was from the pulpit of Varick church; after he visited Yale University, he made his way over to Varick. Morrison believed in Washington’s philosophy that everyone should learn and everyone should have employment.
“For me personally,” says Dr. Felder-McEntire, “it was more about what Booker accomplished, when he accomplished it, and how he built up what was then the Tuskegee Institute. I immediately saw that we, as Black people, hands-on, were building our own institute, the same way Booker had built his. That meant the world to me.”
The tight group of five would not be deterred. Dr. Felder-McEntire says, “Oh, yeah, we were [a] deep family from the beginning. Adding more detail, she says, “For 7 years, we literally lived and breathed each other--like, all the time we were knee-deep in establishing the school.”
Reverend Morrison remembers submitting the charter to the state several times and failing each time. “I had decided that this final time was going to be my last, “ he states. He continues, “And of course, I didn’t tell everyone; a few people knew that this was pretty much it. If it didn’t go through, we would try something else.”
The idea was suggested to partner with the charter management company Family Urban Schools of Excellence (known as FUSE), led by Michael Sharp, which had a school in Hartford. A few months before the BTWA application was submitted, Reverend Morrison recalls that FUSE fell apart when It was discovered that Michael Sharp was a “total fraud.”
Dr. Felder-McEntire states with disappointment, “Yeah, that was a mistake, a hard lesson, man.” Looking back, she remembers that she, Jesse Phillips, and Reverend Morrison were “not always feeling a hundred percent about him.” Their initial intuition proved to be correct. But was it too late?
John, I need you to come immediately to New Haven.
The clock was ticking, and the team had a little over a month to regroup from the FUSE fiasco and get the application submitted to the state—they needed a Hail Mary pass. One day, Jesse Philips was in the office with Reverend Morrison when they remembered meeting John Taylor at a charter school conference and talking to him a few times.
It was time to call. Morrison remembers pleading over the telephone, “John, I need you to come immediately to New Haven.” John said, “Pastor, I’m on vacation.” His next breath was, “Pastor, I’ll be there.”
John had done charter work in several states, Kanicka remembers. He had been involved with opening the all-boys school Green Tech High Charter School in Albany, New York, from 2007 to 2012. On the school’s website, it mentions him as the founding principal.
He had observed the summer enrichment program at the church and was excited about what was happening for the kids. Kanicka says, “it was an aha moment.” She continues, “We’re looking here and there and everywhere trying to find somebody to help, and we have the person right in front of us.” She didn’t anticipate that John would one day be the principal and later the executive director. It just happened.
With John onboard, the team worked to submit the charter application to the state. Dr. Felder-McEntire remembers hand-delivering the 500-page application the prior two times. Working on the curriculum piece of the application inspired her to get her doctorate in educational leadership at Southern Connecticut State University.
The charter application was submitted.
They were waiting for a miracle. Their hard work and prayers were finally answered. Reverend Morrison remembers receiving a partial charter in 2014. Dr. Mayo and John Taylor would “quarterback” that first year of getting the school up and running on 240 Greene Street in New Haven.
As has been proven over and over, origin stories evolve. On the school’s website, Reverend Morrison is credited as the visionary behind the Booker T. Washington Academy. During that time, the church, under his leadership, was the team's spiritual home and served as the central location for coordination with the community, support and inspiration for the proposed school. Plus, Reverend Morrison was active in the community, and his presence and stature in the community gave the work added creditability.
There is no mention of the other co-founders on the website. “When many of us had served our time on the board and left, the school redid the website and chose to keep only Morrison’s name up there,” says Dr. Felder-McEntire. She doesn’t sound disappointed, just resolved to accept what has happened.
It takes a team to open a school. Many people were involved, including Dr. Edward Joyner, Dr. Sheryl Karosen, individual donors, foundations and more. All are necessary but often get left out of the founder’s story.
A Public Charter School
Increasingly, public charter schools have become an option when public education doesn’t meet expectations—whether realistic or not. The argument for public charter schools is that they provide an alternative to the current malaise of public schools, which have a monopoly on public education.
Public charter schools are funded with public and private donor dollars and have been an option in Connecticut since a charter law was passed in 1996. Today, nearly 11,000 students attend charter schools in the state, with 88% located in urban areas.
They differ from private schools in almost every way, from accessibility and funding to governance. Charter schools are beholden to their charters and must adhere to federal laws and regulations but are not governed by the local school board.
Education Week reports, "The vast majority of charter schools are not unionized because state laws exempt charters from a lot of rules, including, in most states, collective bargaining contracts.” Only 11.3 percent of charter schools nationally are unionized.
In the U.S., 53.1 million students are enrolled in all schools, from kindergarten through twelfth grade. There are nearly 7,700 charter schools with 3.4 million students (of which 60.1 percent are Hispanic or Black) and over 205,000 teachers, based on data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Washington vs DuBois
Selecting the name for any school today is not an easy task. The controversy surrounding Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois is no different from asking people to pick Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X—both had different philosophies. To a lesser extent, it’s like arguing who is the greatest of all time (G.O.A.T) in basketball. Is it Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan or LeBron James?
When it comes to Washington vs. Du Bois, there’s much to unpack in terms of philosophies, tactics, and understanding of their times.
Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in Virginia in 1856. After the Civil War, he attended Hampton Institute, one of the first all-Black schools in the country, while serving as a domestic for a white family and in a salt mine. Those were not good times to be Black in America.
Booker T. Washington adjusted to the times. He believed that Blacks should seek economic independence and show they could be productive members of society. Given that he was based in the South, he thought it was foolish to pursue civil rights. His view was described as the “practical rationality” approach.
At the time, whites were content to defer the discussion of political and social equity to another day—if at all. Critics called Booker’s platform the “Atlanta Compromise,” based on a speech he gave at the Cotton State and International Exposition in Atlanta in 1895.
In that speech, he said, “The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing.”
W. E. B. Du Bois was born free in 1868 in an integrated community of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He graduated at the top of his high school class. In 1885, while attending Fisk University in Tennessee, Du Bois experienced the injustices of the Jim Crow South. He graduated but chose to continue his education in the North. He spent three years at Harvard to obtain another undergraduate degree because Harvard didn’t accept course credits from Fisk.
Du Bois was the first Black man to obtain a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1895. His dissertation was “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in the United States of America, 1638-1870.” Equal rights for Blacks became his goal.
In his autobiography The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois wrote,
Mr. Washington distinctly asks that Black people give up, at least for the present, three things, --
First, Political power,
Second, insistence on civil rights,
Third, higher education of Negro youth, --
and concentrate all their energies on industrial education, the accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South. This policy has been courageously and insistently advocated for over fifteen years, and has been triumphant for perhaps ten years. As a result of the tender of the palm-branch, what has been the return? In these years, there have occurred:
Perhaps, there is no need to choose. One can learn something from both men and appreciate each point of view. Their excellence is a positive, lasting example.
Answering the Call
I speak to John Taylor, the founding principal of BTWA, on the telephone in late July 2022. John, 57, taught in the Pittsburgh public school system for six years. He was discouraged by the system and left to work in the private sector. He would become an advocate for charter schools.
John believes that every kid has unlimited potential. In his deep voice, he says, “So here we’re unapologetic about that, and if you don’t believe in the potential of the kids that we serve, you can’t work here.”
He was raised by a single mother in the Hill district in Pittsburgh. John went on to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Duquesne University. Education means something to him—it's personal.
His mother instilled into him and his four other siblings that they had to be twice as good. He believes that mindset has been lost over the years, which has had a negative impact on the way many Black people think. To him, kids in poverty can learn and overcome, despite their circumstances growing up in poverty. He has no illusion that it is easy but knows it can be done.
So here we’re unapologetic about that, and if you don’t believe in the potential of the kids that we serve, you can’t work here.
John is focused on eliminating the deficit mindset of “scholars” (the preferred word for students at BTWA) that they can’t achieve because of poverty. Much of what the school does is to inculcate the scholars with achievement. To accomplish this, the school runs an hour and fifteen minutes longer than its counterparts in New Haven to focus on remediation or enrichment.
The school has been successful. It was designated a “School of Distinction” and received a Category 1 rating from the Connecticut State Department of Education. But it was by no means an overnight success.
John states, “I mean, early on, it was a little slow in terms of enrollment because we were an unknown quality.” At one event, a heckler disagreed with what John was saying. According to John's telling of the story, the heckler had heard something similar from public school educators. That heckler would eventually buy into what the school was doing and has become a big supporter.
In 2022, the school had its first 8th-grade graduating class. Many of the students went on to Eli Whitney Technical High School or Wilbur Cross High School. John has visions of future students being accepted by highly selective private schools. He knows the value of such schools because his daughter, now 25, attended one.
A School Tour
On August 5, I arrived at Booker T. Washington’s current location at 804 State Street. The school is part of the urban landscape, next to St. Stanislaus Church and the many small businesses that line the street.
The staff I meet are friendly and eager to help me, from the principal down to the secretary. It’s refreshing. Frank Galicia gives me a tour of the school. He has curly black and silver hair, eyeglasses, and a bushy goatee.
Frank, Dean of Academics, Math & Science, has been at the school for three years—he has over 27 years in education. He has traveled the world with stops in California, Connecticut, China, Slovakia, Ukraine and Qatar. He’s loquacious and weaves his travel journeys into the tour.
The floors have a new coat of wax and sparkle as if powered by some new nuclear technology. Chairs are stacked on top of desks, and boxes of books are stacked six high in the front hall, waiting for their final resting place. The building is calm but clearly in a transition stage. On this day, the principal, secretary and some teachers have returned to school. All are dressed casually for the weather.
It's an old building with a new lease on life—I picture the Netflix show Car Masters. On the first floor are kindergarten and first-grade rooms. We walk by classrooms and pop into some. Frank is wearing a maroon shirt with yellow lettering (the school's colors); Booker T. Washington’s image is imprinted on the shirt. The words “Work Hard! Get Smart!” are on the front of his tee shirt—and on the front of the building.
It’s hot inside the school. Dressed to beat the heat and for physical work, Frank is wearing blue cargo shorts, white socks, and brown leather sneakers with thick white soles. A few weeks after our interview, he would resign abruptly.
On the first floor, the air conditioning provides a respite from the heat. As we make our way to the second and third floors, the coolness of air conditioning seems to be a distant memory, as we quickly reach sauna-level heat.
There are two towers in this 1922 building. The first tower provides access to the third floor. The word “students” slips from Frank’s mouth, and he swiftly corrects himself with the preferred word “scholars” as he provides information about the school.
The building is old and lacks the appeal of the many new schools in New Haven. Parents choose this school for what happens in the classroom, not its looks. Frank is quick to say he is amazed at what the gym teacher can do in the tiny space. The school has a can-do attitude, with the cafeteria doubling as an auditorium with old wooden floors and a stage.
A Parent’s Perspective
I speak to Erica Valle, operations manager at the school, on August 9. This is her fourth year working there. She left her job in retail to be a hall monitor, then was promoted to secretary, followed by lead secretary.
The thirty-eight-year-old is the mother of three children. When she moved to a different neighborhood in New Haven, she went to the Board of Education. They recommended BTWA. Initially, she was hesitant to try the new school but relented. Her boys have been at the school since kindergarten, and her daughter started in the first grade.
Her two boys are now in fifth and sixth grade, and her daughter was part of the first graduating class at the school and attends Eli Whitney Technical High School in New Haven.
Erica lives close to the Hill Central School in New Haven but chooses to have her kids attend BTWA. She mentions that her kids could have walked to Hill Central and gotten out early.
I love it, and when I hear people say bad stuff about the school, like, ‘I’m pulling my kid out,’ I try to talk to them.
She was worried at first about the longer school day for her daughter. The family wakes up at 5:00 a.m. She says, “When she first started, she would fall asleep on the way home. She would wake up when she got home and fall asleep again on the couch. “And I’m like, man, you gotta stay up, you have to take a shower, eat your dinner. It was a big change, but they got used to it.”
Referring to Booker, Erica says, “I love it, and when I hear people say bad stuff about the school, like, ‘I’m pulling my kid out,’ I try to talk to them. They probably think I’m telling them because I work here, but I’m like, no, I’m speaking to you as a parent. If I thought the school wasn’t a good fit, I wouldn’t have my kids here. I honestly love it. My kids are all doing great academically; I have no complaints.”
Erica loves that the school is “so family orientated.” She knew everyone, and they knew her at the school before she started working there. Pre-Covid, there were many in-person events at the school. To this day, she remains active in the PTO.
She acknowledges that “it is an older building. It doesn’t look as nice as the newer New Haven buildings, but it does the job. I mean, it’s safe.”
The most significant cause of misconceptions about the school is that “if one person had a bad experience and then they go out and speak to other people, they make it seem worse than it is,” she says.
Her best friend has a daughter who is struggling at school in New York City. “I wish they could just come to Connecticut and be here because that wouldn’t be happening—they have so much support [here]. It kills me to see her struggling so bad and, like, nobody’s helping her.”
The Grand Vision
Today, BTWA serves over 530 students, from kindergarten to eighth grade. Dr. Chaka is excited about what she and the group achieved. “When you think about it, five Black people of different ages—grassroots—starting a school like that is phenomenal. At the time, four of the co-founders were in their thirties.
She continues, “I’m still in awe of the fact that we did that, and I’m mostly in awe, you know, I’m here still in Connecticut; I see little kids with Booker T. Washington tee shirts on, and they don’t have a clue who I am. And I look at these little babies, and I’m like, ‘We did that!’ And that baby goes to that school.” She laughs with glee as if she was told a joke.
Kanicka rates opening the charter school as “up there” in terms of her top professional achievements. “It definitely is because not too many people can say that they opened a school and stayed involved in the school for x number of years.” Her son, 13 now, went through the summer enrichment program and knows about Booker T. Washington.
Jesse Phillips' text reads, “That it was all worth the three tries and the headache so that generations can now have a chance to get a good education.”
Reverend Morrison’s work of uplifting people continues. He says, “If our ancestors made it with so little, we have so many tools at our reach that we can do way more and way better than they did. And we do.”
He feels it a privilege to minister to people at both their highest and lowest points in life. He preaches what some people may call a social gospel, yet “it is the only gospel that he knows.” His friend, Dr. Dominique A. Robertson, a professor at Seminary of Southwest in Austin, Texas, says, “we are hope dealers” by taking the message in the Bible and using it to inspire people weekly and daily.
Reverend Morrison knows that “the only way that evil wins is for good folks to give up and to kind of turn a blind eye towards the wrongs that are going on in our society.”
He doesn’t plan to stop at one school. His vision is to launch additional charter schools based on the BTWA model that has been proven in New Haven. The plan is to form a management company that will take the model throughout the country.
Booker T. Washington would be proud of these people and the community that lifted itself up.
Anthony Price is an entrepreneur, writer and publisher of Mini Books, concise adventures for people who are curious about the world.