Head Start helped turn farm workers and domestics into teachers, administrators

Crystal Sanders, assistant professor of African American Studies and History at Penn State, recently wrote about working-class black women who used a federal program to improve education for black children and help secure political and economic self-determination. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A federal preschool program gave a head start to more than just African American children in segregationist-dominated Mississippi, it also offered their parents and other adults a head start into higher paying occupations and new leadership opportunities, according to a Penn State historian. 

"The idea behind the Head Start program was that we need to prepare kids from working-class backgrounds who perhaps did not have adequate stimulation at home to be prepared for the first grade, but the idea was also that you can't expect a child from a disadvantaged background to do well if there aren't opportunities for their parents," said Crystal Sanders, an assistant professor of history and African American studies. "You have to improve the community in which the child lives."

The Head Start preschool program grew out of a key provision of the federal Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 that required programs to operate with the maximum feasible participation of the poor.

"What this meant in regards to Head Start was that local people had the opportunity to become Head Start teachers, center directors, teachers aides and social workers," said Sanders, who wrote about the program's influence on the Civil Rights movement in her book, "A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi's Black Freedom Struggle" (University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

She added that the new jobs politically empowered blacks in Mississippi by giving them a chance to sidestep several methods that whites used to reinforce black disenfranchisement in Mississippi.

"Head Start created employment opportunities for hundreds of thousands of working-class Americans across the country, but these jobs were particularly important in Mississippi because working-class African Americans typically worked in two fields: they were agricultural workers or domestic servants," said Sanders. "So, Head Start provided employment opportunities for them, which is significant because it allowed them to earn higher wages than they ever made before and freed them from the control of white employers, who often controlled their political activities through their jobs."

Managing the program funds also gave African Americans more respect and economic clout as they worked with food and drink vendors and local contractors.

Sanders interviewed several of the 2,000 working-class black women who worked for Head Start during that era for her book. She said that the women spoke of how their Head Start jobs changed their lives.

"One of my favorite women mentioned in the book was Hattie Saffold, who had an eighth-grade education before her Head Start employment not only allowed her to go back and get her GED, but also, a bachelors degree," said Sanders. "There are countless stories of women securing Head Start jobs that allowed them to ensure that poor black children in Mississippi had quality educational opportunities, but also helped the women improve their own lives."

At the time, public education for black students stopped at the eighth grade in several parts of Mississippi, she added.   

In addition to the occupational opportunities that Head Start gave adults, Sanders said that the program gave black students new educational opportunities. They were able to learn about African and African American history, often for the first time.

"In Mississippi, the white ruling class controlled, limited and filtered what black students learned in black schools, so even during the age of segregation, black students did not learn black history in black schools," said Sanders. "Through Head Start, local people had the opportunity to create the curriculum they wanted and they created a curriculum that prioritized black history and West African heritage and culture. And that was a way to foster self-esteem among young people who were too often told that they didn't have a history."

Students also received regular health, vision, and hearing screenings, as well as daily nutritious meals.

"This is huge because many of these students have never been seen by a doctor before and many were children of sharecroppers, which meant that they often received diets that were heavy in starches and not balanced meals," said Sanders.  "The idea is that these students can only achieve academically if they are well."

Head Start was one of several federal anti-poverty programs started under President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty and authorized by Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. Title II, a provision in the act, created the Community Action Program that required programs, like Head Start, be operated with "maximum feasible participation" of the poor. 

Last Updated July 29, 2017