Note: Sections of this entry were written in 1969, a time when “Negro” was considered a respectful means of address for Black people. I’ve chosen to leave the word as is. Doing otherwise would be anachronistic.
The center is way out in the country, many miles down a red dirt road over which the trees arch in a way that must make it invisible from the air. There is a clearing with a white wooden church and a large house off to the right. The church is squat and nondescript, but it is extremely well-kept.
Behind it, running down to the far end of the clearing, is a little cemetery. I am always moved by the sadness of being buried in such an isolated place, but it is a lot sadder that people have lived out their lives here.
A playground runsalongside the church which makes a dazzling impression against the drab background. It is crammed with makeshift equipment— old crates for jungle gyms, old inner tubes transformed into swings, seesaws made of barrels and planks. Everything is painted in kindergarten colors—blue and pink— and even the outhouse in the churchyard looks appealing in these colors.
Inside, children are bustling in every direction with the happy noise they tell me is missing in most Negro elementary schools. (l have never been in one.) The church benches have been pressed into service as tables, using the seats to draw, eat, or paste on. The walls are filled
with children’s drawings, except near the door where envelopes hang filled with paper, crayons, and scraps of cloth, all neatly labeled.
We have brought some of our psychological tests with us, mostly out of curiosity to see what the children will do with the material. We invite children over one by one to look at the pictures and play with the equipment. Their eyes are bright, alert, but they speak little. One little girl wearing a college sweatshirt impatiently watches the slow efforts of the others, then pushes forward to display her mastery of every challenge we pose. The children are asked to identify objects shown on little cards. One is a shiny porcelain gas oven. I wonder where any of them would have seen such an object. There is no card with a picture of an outhouse. One task all the children perform with great dispatch: separating the black buttons from the white and placing them in separate containers.
After the children leave, we go with Doris, the resource teacher, to the house next door to the church. Several of the children in the center live there. Chickens scratch in the yard. Children peer at us from around the side of the house. Inside, the house is a sea of beds, wall to wall, broken only by a television set and a
collapsing couch. The mother speaks shyly to “Miss Doris” (Doris is Black) about her children, about the odd jobs picking cotton, and about the grandfather who has given up farming here for a menial job in Memphis. When we leave, we can hear her screaming at the children, raw from the unrelieved bleakness.
That night there is a parents’ meeting. The atmosphere is quiet, respectful. The men, dressed in their best church clothes, cluster together on one side, the women on the other. There is a prayer, a hymn, after which the teachers rise one by one to report on their classes, to show the children’s art work, and to sing the songs which the children are learning. I am always embarrassed by the sight of an adult very intently singing a children’s song, but the parents are obviously pleased. No one has ever bothered before to tell them what their children are learning.
The next speaker, a young Negro in the familiar movement uniform—blue work shirt and dungarees —moves to the front and speaks in subdued tones. He describes various FHA loans, for which Negro farmers are eligible, speaks bitterly of the discriminatory manner in which the loan programs are administered. He reports on the latest moves by the mayor to capture political control of the county’s poverty programs and asks for volunteers to write letters
of protest to Washington. Several men rise to say that they will write, and the young man thanks them. He is a Mississippi boy talking to his own people in tones of obvious respect, but his language is already beginning to grow too abstract and unemotional for his audience. He does not reach them deep down where their anger and their insecurity lie hidden. Yet, I amuse myself with the thought of what Senator Stennis would make of this strange juxtaposition of children’s songs and attacks on the power structure.
This is what the Head Start program looked like almost 60 years ago, just moments after the Big Bang, as it were. It’s the summer of 1965 and I am privileged to be at the scene as a staff member of the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM), a statewide program which includes more than 80 Head Start centers. There are more than 2,000 employees, almost all of them without professional training beyond what the program has provided. Many of these staff members have worked in the civil rights movement – either SNCC or MFDP (The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party). As you can infer from the description of the young organizer’s presentation, that Movement experience is part of the program’s DNA.
I’ve written in depth about CDGM elsewhere. I don’t intend to repeat any of that here. My goal is to give you a sense of how Head Start has changed over the years. The work still provides a leg up for children and families in poverty, but the founding belief that the impact of the education provided by the program is limited if it is not part of an effort to change the communities in which it is embedded is now muted at best. The world has and hasn’t changed since those early Mississippi days. There are still too many poor, hungry children living in impoverished families. Perhaps recalling the fire in the program’s belly at its inception will inspire a reawakening of that early spirit, now buried deep under layers of paperwork and regulations.