As little first graders scurried down the steps after another day at school in Detroit, Helen Moore’s principal, sensing commotion, peered outside the doorway.
A mob of white men approached the building, flashing their shotguns.
It was the summer of the 1943 Detroit uprising. Black and white residents battled across the city’s streets. Racism, poor housing, and the denial of work and services Black residents endured fueled the fighting. The year before, white residents furiously protested the arrival of Black residents moving into a housing project in a predominantly white neighborhood. Factories halted production after some whites refused to work alongside African-Americans. There were brutal beatings meted out by both sides during that bloody summer, resulting in 34 deaths, according to the Detroit Historical Society. Nine were white and 25 were Black.
“When the riot broke out, I saw a lot of things that probably children shouldn’t see,” Moore said, who was six years old at the time. She was born in Newport, Tennessee in 1936, but moved to Detroit when she was three years old after her dad got a job at the Ford Motor Company.
The day the white men wielding guns came to her school, she and her brothers and sisters were among the Black students enrolled there. Her house was just a few blocks away.
“You can’t leave,” Moore remembered her principal telling her. He then chained the school door shut.
“We were standing there watching these people wanting to kill us,” she said. Several hours passed as the Moore children stayed locked inside the school.
Then Moore’s father, carrying a shotgun on his shoulder and accompanied by other Black adults, strode toward the school. At that point, Moore said, the white mob had left. The children, along with their father’s group, marched down the streets and went home.
That memory of racist terror scarred Helen Moore, now 85. But the experience would also help shape the political consciousness and transform her into becoming a revered warrior for Detroit students. She’s spent the last six decades as an education activist fighting for Black and Brown children’s right to an equal education. She helped form Black Parents for Quality Education, and is heavily involved in Journey for Justice, a national education advocacy organization rooted in racial justice and educational equity, and founded the Keep the Vote/No Take Over Coalition, which fought against state control of the Detroit public school system.
She has never let herself, her own children, and thousands of Detroit students over the years be treated as second class citizens in classrooms. Or perceived as less-than-capable learners.
“All I had to do is open up their mind in their brain and tell them to listen to that,” Moore said when she talks to students. “You have a brain that hasn’t been nourished enough. And you can do anything you want. Don’t listen to that crap and let them put you in a category of inferiority.”
Defiance seemed built into her DNA at an early age. A few years after the incident at her old school, Moore’s family moved to a house on Buchanan Street near West Grand Boulevard. She then transferred to the neighborhood school. As a third-grader, she knew she was smart. But when her teacher gave her an F on her report card, the young Moore rebuked her.
“So I got to school, and I went up to the teacher and I said, ‘You gave me a bad grade,” she said. “The teacher went and looked in the book. And she said, Oh, my God, you’re right. I did give you the wrong grade.’ So she changed the grade.” Moore later ran home with her updated report card and showed it to her parents.
After the 1967 uprising, Moore, who then became a mother, was part of a wave of Black families moving into the predominantly white Barton-McFarland neighborhood. Moore enrolled her children at Barton Elementary School, which was the best school in the area at the time.
When more Black children started going to Barton, the academic culture and attitudes shifted for the worse.
“Kids were doing whatever they wanted to do. Teachers weren’t teaching,” Moore said. “And so I stood up at one of the PTA meetings and said, ‘Why are we getting inferior education, simply because more Blacks are coming to this school?’ And so several people got angry, some parents that were white got angry with the blacks.”
But other Black and white parents were also troubled by the decline they saw at the school. So in 1969, Moore helped organize the group Black Parents for Quality Education, who banded together to demand better treatment for Black students. It’s how she got her start as an activist in the school system.
White parents were also involved, but amplifying “Black” in the group’s name was crucial to buck against negative stereotypes.
“Why did we call ourselves the ‘Black Parents for Quality Education?” Moore said. “You have to show that Black parents are involved with their children, that these parents, all of us together at Barton school, are after the same thing.”
Her persistent fight for equal education coincided with pivotal moments in the history of Detroit Public Schools, the largest school district in Michigan which serves mostly Black students.
From 2009 to 2016, emergency management was deemed by many a turbulent era for DPS. State-appointed emergency managers were charged with improving the district’s fiscal
problems. To some, that charge had dire consequences. Dozens of schools were shuttered, school building conditions deteriorated, and multi-million dollar debt accrued. In the classroom, students were using outdated curriculum.Teacher pay dropped, and the school board held limited policy and budgetary power.
Moore and hundreds of parents and educators protested the state’s governance of the school system by traveling to the Michigan capital. To them, students’ lives were in jeopardy.
“When they took the school system away from us, and they put in emergency managers, we were the ones that were fighting in Lansing, all the way through,” she said.
After years of resisting state control, in 2016, Michigan lawmakers agreed to a $615 legislative package that led to the creation of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, which educates students. Under the deal, emergency managers would no longer monitor the district, although a separate state commission would oversee the district’s finances until 2020. DPS remains active to collect tax revenue and pay off legacy debt. As part of the deal, full authority was restored to the elected school board, and in 2017, a new superintendent was chosen to lead the district.
“It was not done by anybody but a bunch of grassroots people,” Moore said regarding the dissolution of emergency management.
But the same year the Detroit Public Schools Community District was created, another battle for the right to literacy began. Seven Detroit district students filed a lawsuit against the state of Michigan, alleging they lacked opportunities to access a quality education due to crumbling school buildings, inferior textbooks, and unqualified teachers. They laid blame at the hands of the state’s oversight of the city school system for these untenable learning conditions.
Moore was heavily involved in the lawsuit, accompanying the student plaintiffs and their attorney to court proceedings in Cincinnati.
“We want[ed] it to be a landmark case for all Black and Brown children in the United States,” she said.
In 2020, student plaintiffs and state defendants agreed to a $94 million settlement, which included $40,000 payouts to each student, and a few million dollars to the district to help boost literacy efforts. Yet no legal precedent was established for a constitutional right to literacy. Even though the settlement was a partial victory, the lack of a precedent was a disappointment.
The keys to sustaining her activism and encouraging parents and teachers alike to participate has been providing clear lines of communication, organizing monthly meetings, sharing information on the latest updates on what’s going on in the schools and asking families how they wanted to make the schools better for their children. By keeping these community hubs active
and engaged, word also spreads to other parents who may not have time to attend a school board meeting and learn about what’s happening in the district.
Moore’s also garnered a reputation for her bold tactics during school board meetings. In 2018, she made local headlines after disrupting school board members during their regular monthly meeting. She was abruptly removed from the meeting, getting physically escorted out of the building by security guards. She had shared her displeasure on a number of board agenda items, including, at the time, the consideration of a lobbyist representing the district’s interests in Lansing. After a temporary meeting adjournment, she’d later be allowed to re-enter the building, then walked onto the auditorium stage, assuring her vocal supporters she was okay.
Moore challenges the public perception of her tactics.
“I am not the crazy person that a lot of people think I am,” she said. “The point is to draw and to get people to recognize and talk…I’m being dragged out of a meeting, and I’m making a whole speech all the way up the door. So that people will remember what this was all about.”
Moore said it was also a way to keep the urgency of the students’ needs alive, a lesson she learned early on from other activists.
“They said the thing that really stopped our progress is that many of the leaders that get out there, they get tired, they stop,” she said. “The secret to raising our children up to where they should be, no matter what comes before, is a person that can stand the time.”
To this day, Detroit’s Black students still lag behind in reading and writing skills compared to their white peers in more white and affluent suburban school districts, although there has been some improvement in recent years. Moore’s passionate about helping students with reading and writing, and helped create DPSCD’s Let’s Read program in 2019. The program recruits community volunteers to work with early learners on completing assignments, and guide them through reading books of their choice to promote a strong reading culture.
Let’s Read was temporarily halted because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Moore is hopeful the program will start up again soon.
“You got a whole lot of adults surrounding you that believe in you, and are helping you get to where you need to go,” she said. “Some kids don’t even know who they are. They don’t know how brilliant they are.”
So when students’ young minds and talents are nurtured, by people like Moore who’ve been fighting for them since before they were born, their learning begins to blossom.
“All of a sudden the light goes off,” she said. “And the next thing you know, you got a bunch of geniuses.
Helen Moore, interviewed by Peter Blackmer and Oriana Yilma, March 2, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.