Fifty years have passed, but Sophia Bracy Harris can still see the White high school teacher glaring at her.
It was 1965, and Harris — who celebrated her retirement on Jan. 23 after 44 years as co-founder and executive director of the Federation of Childcare Centers of Alabama (FOCAL) – and her sister Debra were among the first seven Black students to enroll at the previously all-White Wetumpka High School in rural Elmore County, Alabama.
It was the tenth grader’s first day at the new school, and Harris was puzzled by the instruction to produce a “composition” – teachers had used the term “theme paper” at her previous school.
“When the teacher asked why I was not doing my assignment, I said, ‘I don’t know,’” recalls Harris.
“‘And you people think that you are qualified to come to our school,’” the teacher scoffed.
“I was so embarrassed,” says Harris, who would go on to be recognized with a MacArthur “genius” award for her work in child care and early childhood education. “I felt like I let everybody down in my race, my parents and my whole community that had supported raising me.”
Harris and her family would face more than scorn in their effort to pursue an equal education. Two weeks later, a White boy with a slingshot launched a rock that hit Debra Bracy in the back. Debra, who hit her assailant, spent the night in jail and was expelled from school for four months. The White boy went unpunished.
The worst came in the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 2, 1966, the day that Debra Bracy was to return to school. Just hours after the family returned home from an annual celebration of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the eight Bracy children woke to the sound of their mother’s warning shouts. Flames lapped at three of the four entrances to their crowded, five-room house.
Their house had been firebombed. Everyone got out safely, but the family home was burned to the ground.
Harris’s father, Roosevelt Bracy, later found an unexploded Molotov cocktail (a gasoline-filled bottle with a rag wick) in the bed of his pickup. A local newspaper reported that no foul play was suspected in the fire, and authorities never bothered to investigate it.
“Danger was everywhere in terms of your stepping outside the boundaries of what was considered the place of Black folks,” Harris says.
“More Is Caught Than Taught”
Growing up in a state where 45 percent of the total population was enslaved a century earlier, these early encounters with racism and racial violence left an indelible mark on Sophia Bracy Harris.
After graduating from Alabama’s Auburn University in 1972 with a degree in family and child development, Harris devoted her life’s work to improving child care and early education for children of Black mothers in rural Alabama and throughout the Southeast, and increasing funding for child care at the state and national levels.
Harris, now 66, co-founded the Montgomery-based FOCAL in 1972 and has served as its executive director since 1974. She is also the Alabama director of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice. In both roles, Harris has trained women to operate effective child care centers and empowered poor Black women and their families to “work collectively as their own best advocates.”
For her efforts, Harris, who lives in Montgomery, received a $260,000 “genius grant” in 1991 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, based in Chicago.
She sums up her philosophy this way: “More is caught than taught” – that is, children, not to mention the adults in their lives, learn more from action than from words.
That is particularly true in Alabama and much of the South, where racism – both blatant and subtle – remains widespread, Harris says.
“What we have tried to do at FOCAL is teach the parents and child care providers, helping them to be prepared as human beings to really confront racism,” she says.
“It’s about race being a factor integrated in all aspects of our lives.”
A Legacy of Activism
As she prepares to retire, Harris, who plans to write a memoir, leaves behind her a legacy of activism. FOCAL traces its roots to 1972, when a group of about 60 Black parents gathered at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Selma, concerned about a new Alabama law that required the licensure of all facilities and individuals caring for more than six children.
The licensing process often proved erratic. Much-needed centers were denied licenses without logical explanation. Harris and the newly-formed group helped get clarity about the licensing requirements and trained women running small child care centers to ensure they passed inspections.
Today, FOCAL is statewide membership organization representing 300 community-based child care providers, parents, community leaders and other child advocates across Alabama. Its goal is to improve and promote accessible child care by educating parents and providers and organizing them to be effective advocates.
Rooted in the values of the civil rights movement, FOCAL’s organizing model is based on the presumption that people are their own best advocates and includes an examination of how internalized messages of inferiority and powerlessness play out to this day in families and communities.
“If we weren’t in touch with the way that we were continuing to shame children by calling them ugly, nappy-headed, ain’t gonna be nothing, trifling — as opposed to affirming them and helping them as children need to be affirmed — we were continuing to perpetuate the impact of slavery, even though we no longer had the chains on our ankles,” says Harris, who has two children and two grandchildren herself.
FOCAL: Making an Impact
- Created a network of more than 300 child care providers, advancing educational opportunity in Alabama and the Southeast.
- FOCAL members — including family, group home and child care center providers – touch the lives of more than 4,000 poor and Black children and their parents each day.
- Helped more than 1,500 people develop programs for civic engagement with training to empower leaders, parents and child care staff to advocate for families.
- Brings more than 300 conference participants together each year to develop organizing and advocacy skills to support children and families.
- Succeeded in retaining 28,000 people on the Alabama Child Care Subsidy Program after gathering more than 4,200 signatures requesting the state Legislature maintain funding levels.
- Gathered 8,000 signatures for a 2015 petition to Alabama Gov. Robert J. Bentley to expand Medicaid. Bentley is considering expanding the program, which provides health care for poor people, after initially opposing the expansion.
“That became the cornerstone of FOCAL’s work.”
In 1974, FOCAL turned its attention to a state proposal that would have required child care providers to complete college courses. Most of the women who ran the centers lacked high school diplomas. Many would have had to drive 50 or 60 miles each way even to get to a college campus. FOCAL lobbied successfully to defeat the proposal.
Harris bristles when she recalls the 1980s “Reaganomics” era. Amidst talk of orphanages, Alabama lawmakers threatened to cut funding for child care for the children of “lazy welfare mamas,” as one state legislator put it. FOCAL joined a multiracial coalition that successfully lobbied instead for a measure that taxed corporations to create money for child care.
A Mother’s Message
Harris credits her mother with helping inspire her devotion to early childhood education.
“My mother was a believer in education. She was just so absolutely obsessed that her children get the best education possible and viewed that as essential for the progress of humanity,” Harris says.
Longtime colleagues point to Harris’s indomitable spirit and her firm belief that the struggle for civil rights continues – and will continue, long after her retirement.
“I think what makes her tick is a commitment to her people, including the children in struggling families,” says Oleta Fitzgerald, regional director of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative and Southern regional director of the Washington, D.C.-based Children’s Defense Fund.
“Sophia has a way of holding people accountable to what the focus should be,” Fitzgerald elaborates. “It is anchored in the belief that you can’t just tell people stuff. They’ve got to sense that you care, and you’ve got to take time to be with them where they are.”
Andrea Rabinowitz, a longtime friend and supporter who is retired from teaching kindergarten and counseling families in Seattle, says Harris recognizes that the future lies in nurturing children.
“If you want to change the world, take care of small children and give them a feeling of being appreciated and important,” Rabinowitz says. “This is what Sophia is all about. She felt she had to work with the child care workers first, and if they didn’t feel good about themselves, then negative messages would be passed on to children.”
Coming Full Circle
Today, as Harris reflects on her career and the civil rights movement, she holds fast to the belief that hope triumphs over despair.
At 1 a.m. on Jan. 2, a half century after the firebombing that destroyed the Bracy home, Harris and 31 members of her extended family gathered in her Montgomery home at a candlelight ceremony.
They read a newspaper clipping about the fire, and each of them reflected on the new year and their hopes for new beginnings.
At the end of the ceremony, Harris recited the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., spoken when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality,” Harris intones.
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
Gary Gately is a freelance journalist based in Baltimore. His work has been published in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, CBS News, The Crime Report and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. In the top photo, Sophia Bracy Harris speaks at a 2008 gathering of families in Montgomery, Alabama. Marguerite Casey Foundation, which publishes Equal Voice News, helped organize the meeting to hear about the concerns of families. Photo source: Marguerite Casey Foundation. This story has been updated to reflect that the retirement gala occurred.
2016 © Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper