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Mel Gravely
February-10-2022

Considering Head Start’s Place in Black History

Photo courtesy of Chicago Youth Centers

Every year, Black History Month is dedicated to recognizing and honoring the contributions that black Americans have made to American history. It was first recognized as a national educational initiative by Gerald Ford in 1976. In researching for this blog, I myself learned some things about the history of Black History Month and how it came about. I learned that it first began as a grassroots effort among black historians in the 1920s to hold a “Negro History Week.” The event had a lot of initial support from black newspapers, who helped raise awareness about the initiative. And as the movement grew in the following decades, many city mayors and state governments followed.

Those decades were a time of change in America no doubt. Black Americans were actively asserting their place in political and cultural discourse. Just about 10 years prior, the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. A year later, Head Start began in earnest as an eight-week summer program for low-income children. 

By the time Black History Month was formally recognized, Head Start was a $400 million program, serving 350,000 kids. Since its earliest days, Head Start has served many black Americans with a critical educational and development opportunity – quality pre-school. According to the most recent data available, 30% of families enrolled in the Head Start program today identify as Black or African American, while just over 13% of Americans in total identify as such.

Head Start’s history is inextricably linked to the history of black Americans over the last 50 years, both their struggles and their successes. We could write an entire book about it. In fact, someone already did. In her compelling book, A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi’s Black Freedom Struggle, historian Dr. Crystal Sanders describes the overwhelming odds that black people, mostly women, overcame in Mississippi to establish the Head Start program in their state. It’s important to remember that just because the federal government authorized funds for Head Start, the program wasn’t automatic. It needed buy-in from state and local leaders. And as a racially-integrated program for poor kids, many of those local jurisdictions fought it fiercely.

In an interview about her book, Dr. Sanders talked about the pushback from legislators in Mississippi.

“I stumbled upon a 1966 speech given by United States Senator John C. Stennis (D-MS). Senator Stennis took to the Senate floor to oppose the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM), a statewide Head Start program that he maintained was a front for communism and black militancy,” she told the interviewer.  “His sensational language piqued my curiosity, so I began looking for more information about CDGM.  I asked myself ‘What could be so radical and subversive about a program for preschoolers?’”

As Dr. Sanders argues, like many programs that disproportionately serve people of color, Head Start was often portrayed negatively. As we know, the program has been on the chopping block dozens of times throughout its history, with critics saying that it’s too expensive, doesn’t work, or that it isn’t the federal government’s place to provide funding for such a service.

But it’s the stories of Head Start graduates, who used their experience in the program as a catalyst to become valued leaders, that make it impossible to ignore the benefits. Last year during Black History Month, the National Head Start Association (NHSA) honored a few black Americans who attended Head Start as children, one of which was the Office of Head Start’s (OHS) own director, Dr. Bernadine Futrell. 

Dr. Futrell came to OHS with an impressive resume, earning her Ph.D from George Mason University and working for years in the Head Start market before coming to OHS, most recently as the Senior Director for Effective Practice at NHSA. While not the first black woman to hold the director position, Dr. Futrell is the first who, as a child, attended a head start program herself.

In the NHSA article, NHSA Executive Director Yasmina Vinci was quoted as saying, “Dr. Futrell, herself a Head Start graduate and a testament to the strong foundation the program lays for success in school and in life.”

This Black History Month, while teaching your children about the accomplishments and contributions of black Americans to our shared history, don’t forget to take a moment to reflect on Head Start’s place in it. As one of the longest-running anti-poverty programs in the United States, it has served literally millions of children, with some of them growing up to become some of the most recognizable black leaders in the country today.

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