A Moment with Dr. Moore

February 23, 2022

Celebrating Our Unsung Heroes: Black Women in Education

“My heart sings a song of thanks that I am permitted to do something for a long-abused race,” Charlotte Forten Grimké rejoiced during the Civil War. In 1861, after Union troops occupied parts of the coastal Carolinas, federal authorities recruited Grimké to teach newly freed Black children in South Carolina. After the war, she taught in Boston, then went on to work with the U.S. Treasury Department in recruiting more Black teachers.

Grimké was just one in a long line of Black women teachers who’ve left their imprint on the present day, and we should honor their achievements as we mark Black History Month this year. During Reconstruction, Black teachers, many of whom were former slaves, laid the foundation for public education throughout the South. In the early 20th century, they filled the ranks of reform groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League and the National Association of Colored Women.

For these Black pioneers, education wasn’t simply a career. It was part of a broad social mission to empower their race, as a few examples show. In the 1930s, Fannie Williams established the first preschool for Black children in New Orleans, pioneered quality testing to measure students’ success and helped establish Child Health Day in our nation. Mary McLeod Bethune worked as a teacher before founding Bethune-Cookman College, which set educational standards for today’s Black colleges. She went on to become the highest-ranking woman in government when FDR made her head of the Division of Negro Affairs for the National Youth Administration.

And the list goes on to include Evangeline Ward, an early childhood professor who wrote books that set out a code of ethics for early childhood teachers and who served as the first executive director of the Child Development Associate® credentialing program. “A profession that remains alert to the services it renders and is willing to meet the challenges represented by new developments, knowledge and circumstances is indeed a profession,” she said. “The CDA® represents a development in a profession that has begun to take charge of its own professionalism.”

These are words that still ring true for Evelyn K. Moore, a living legend in the early childhood field. Moore worked as a founding teacher in the Perry Preschool Project, a seminal program of the sixties that proved the value of high-quality early learning for underserved Black children. She went on to cofound the National Black Child Institute in 1971, when the idea for the CDA first dawned at the yearly meeting of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “I was involved with it from the beginning,” she recalled, “and was part of the discussion that led it to include academic coursework and allowed CDA students to earn college credits. My fight was as much for the educators as for the children because you have more portability and opportunity if you’re a credentialed teacher.”

The CDA also opened doors for people who otherwise wouldn’t have entered the teaching field, Moore pointed out. And I know what she meant because earning a CDA launched me on a career that brought me to my current role as Council CEO. I’m also keenly aware of the key role that Black women have played in my own past. My mother was a teacher’s aide at Head Start, which I attended as a child. And after high school, I, too, went to work there at the urging of my aunt. As I advanced my education and career, I had mentors who were Black women.

In fact, my heroes include the many women of color, like my mom, who work in our nation’s early childhood settings. They don’t receive the pay they deserve, a problem for all in our field, and probably won’t appear in history books like the educational pioneers I’ve discussed. But these unsung heroes will change the history of our nation by helping Black children build a better future. The National Bureau of Economic Research has shown that Black children who have one Black teacher in their early learning days have higher expectations for themselves, are more likely to graduate high school and have a greater chance of gaining stable employment.

So, the efforts our nation’s Black women make in the early childhood field also have a strong social impact. The work they do prepares the next generation to make a difference, according to Marian Wright Edelman, a great Black activist and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. “Education,” she said, “is for improving the lives of others and leaving the community and world better than you found it.”

That’s because education builds hope, as Charlotte Forten Grimké saw in the 1860s while teaching young children in South Carolina. “The long, dark night of the past, with all its sorrows and fears, was forgotten,” she said. “As for the future, the eyes of these freed children see no clouds in it. Instead, it is full of sunlight”—words that make me think of what I often hear our teachers say: “I love to see the light in children’s eyes when they learn something new.” So, let’s celebrate the many Black women who now fill young children with faith that brighter days are just ahead. They deserve to hear a song of thanks this Black History Month.

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