Professor Speaks on History of Black Education in Mississippi
Issue   |   Tue, 02/27/2018 - 19:03

Crystal Sanders, an associate professor of African-American studies and history at Penn State University, spoke in Paino Lecture Hall on Feb. 21 about the Mississippi Head Start program in 1965 and its effects on the black community. The lecture was the fourth in the Amherst College Education Studies Initiative’s interdisciplinary series.

Sanders studies African-American history, the history of black education and the history of the South. Her research looks at the ways African-Americans fought against oppression in small and everyday ways during the Jim Crow era. Her first book, “A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi’s Black Freedom Struggle,” was published in 2016.

Head Start originated in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty program, which began in 1964, shortly after Johnson took office. The goal of Head Start was to provide low income children with a preschool education so that they were better prepared when they entered first grade.

“In 1965, most states don’t have kindergartens,” Sanders said. “Kindergarten is pretty unheard of, so if your parents didn’t have money to pay for kindergarten, you don’t start school until the first grade. Imagine you come from a home where your parents didn’t have any education themselves or didn’t have the time to work with you before the first grade, so you start school behind.”

The program began as an eight-week summer program, but was eventually turned into a year-round program due to its popularity. The Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM), founded by a group of black parents, applied for a grant the summer that Head Start began so that it could launch a variety of programs around the state. The group was awarded $1.5 million from the Office of Economic Opportunity and launched 84 centers around the state to run during the summer of 1965.

While the program did teach students basic skills, like how to count and their ABCs, it also focused on teaching students from a young age how to be active citizens. Much of this came from the fact that black parents were able to create the curriculum that was being taught.

“Perhaps in teaching young people at a young age to get comfortable with being assertive, of being comfortable with speaking up, that will cause them to speak up later in life,” Sanders said. “It will cause them to question ideas and policies and laws that are unjust.”

One unique aspect of CDGM classrooms was that students voted on everything, even down to the color chalk the teacher used that day, according to Sanders.

“This might seem very elementary and superficial, but you’re trying to instill in people from a very young age that you have a right to vote, you have a right to express your opinion,” she said.

CDGM did benefit the students enrolled in the program, but it also helped members of the community who were employed in these programs. Not only were these wages much higher than those of many other jobs in the area, but CDGM employment also meant freedom from economic intimidation.

Sanders spoke about one employee named Hattie B. Saffold, who had an eighth-grade education, the requirement for CDGM, and worked as a teacher for the program. In September 1965, she decided to send her daughter to the white public school in the area, Durant Elementary School. Other parents followed suit and filed a petition for their children to go to Durant.

The names of all the parents were printed in the newspaper by white supremacists in an effort to intimidate them. All of the parents took their names off the petition after facing economic intimidation by landlords, bosses and more. Saffold, however, kept her name on the list.

“She says, ‘I’m a Head Start teacher, I don’t work for local white people,’” Sanders said. “Technically I work for the federal government, so what are they going to do to me? My check isn’t coming from down the street, my check is coming from Washington. This story shows us just how important Head Start is: of having an employer outside of the local white power structure, of no longer being able to control one’s political activity or one’s educational destiny of their kids through employment or any type of economic reprisal.”

Sloan Askins ’20, who attended the talk, found stories like this to be especially impactful.

“I was particularly struck by the overall courage of the CDGM women,” Askins said. “As someone that is interested in education reform and policy, I found it very inspiring to hear about women who were not particularly educated or knowledgeable about the American education system to be able to make such a tremendous impact on the student’s and the community’s lives.”

News of the program’s success eventually made its way up to Washington. Senator John Stennis, a Democrat from Mississippi, began to voice concern with the state of black education in Mississippi and said that CDGM needed more credentialed educators to manage it properly. Much of this was coded racism, according to Sanders.

Sanders spoke about Stennis’s “fascination” with CDGM and his determination to shut it down. “Stennis begins to call all these committee hearings,” she said. “There was an appropriations hearing for the entire War on Poverty. It was a seven hour hearing and of that seven hour hearing, four hours are spent on CDGM. Four hours are spent on one Head Start program out of the entire War on Poverty initiative.”

Victoria Zhang ’18, who attended the lecture after hearing about it in her Inequality: Law, Economics, and Social Policy class, felt that Sanders gave concrete examples of what racism looks like within the law.

“The entire talk showed how law’s endogeneity, it’s interpretation through institutions, reconstituted racist policies and practices of the past,” Zhang said. “It was a clear look at structural racism through specific examples and oral histories.”

CDGM was eventually shut down in 1968, three years after it began. Shriver created a new Head Start program in Mississippi called Mississippi Action for Progress (MAP), which had more stringent requirements for teachers and had a set curriculum that focused on very basic skills.

Sanders, however, does not consider the story of CDGM a sad one. “CDGM ends because it was too successful at doing what it was supposed to do because it upsets the power structure,” Sanders said. “This program worked so well that it had to be killed.”