Providing for Generations: The Influence of Black Women’s Activism on Progressing Early Childhood Education

In the world of early childhood education (ECE), the dedication, innovation, and passion of Black women often go unrecognized. Historically and still today, Black women form the very backbone of the ECE workforce, tirelessly nurturing and shaping the minds of our youngest learners with love, care, and expertise. The child care sector in the United States has a difficult history. In the past, white families depended on enslaved Black women to care for their children. From nurturing to wet nursing, Black women historically played a crucial role in caring for a significant portion of the nation’s children for many years. This reliance on Black women to offer excellent child care without proper compensation persists in today’s child care system. Despite facing numerous challenges and systemic barriers, Black women continue to play a pivotal role in providing high-quality education and support to children during their crucial developmental years. Join us as we delve into the invaluable contributions and stories of Black women in the field of early childhood education.

Founded in 1895, the National Association of Club Women (NACW) was the first national secular Black women’s organization to empower Black women and promote racial and gender justice, while also focusing on early care and education. Black women’s clubs fundraised for and managed day nurseries and kindergartens, integrating play-based learning to address post-emancipation challenges. Their activism aimed at racial and gender equality, labor rights, and combating injustices, emphasizing education as a tool for progress. NACW efforts highlighted mutual aid, self-determination, and advocacy for child care needs, contributing to broader justice goals.

At the turn of the century, Black club women’s experiences at the crossroads of race, class, and gender influenced their advocacy for racial and gender justice, integrating early education into a broader initiative against anti-Black discrimination. They championed the establishment of both day nurseries and kindergartens, highlighting a comprehensive approach to care and education. Post-1860, Black club women nationwide followed the legacy of formerly enslaved Black individuals who established, funded, and operated numerous day nurseries and kindergartens for Black children in their local communities. They introduced training programs for educators and advocated for integrating kindergartens into public school systems, thus transitioning early childhood education programs to public funding.

Black club women were attracted to the emphasis on learning through play in kindergarten and blended it with their own teaching principles to equip Black children for a fairer world. Kindergartens played a vital role in addressing the challenges that emerged in Black communities post-emancipation, and education was a key component in a broader strategy for racial progress. Black women’s clubs saw kindergarten’s educational philosophy, which focused on educating both mothers and children, as a chance to tackle educational gaps for both groups. Education was seen as crucial for racial uplift, with initiatives tackling labor issues and oppression. Black women’s activism often focused on mutual aid, self-determination, and child care needs, contributing to broader racial and gender justice goals that continue today.

The child care sector faces significant challenges stemming from deep-rooted issues of undervaluation and underpayment, particularly affecting Black women who historically played a central role in caring for white children. This historical imbalance has led to clear inequities and hardships experienced by Black child care providers and the families they serve, perpetuated by intersecting racial, gender, and economic disparities that have been sustained over generations. One out of every five child care providers is a Black woman, with New York child care providers currently earning less than 96% of other jobs in the state. While most people will acknowledge that child care work is extremely undervalued and shamefully underpaid, what’s often left out is the fact that this work is devalued because the history of the profession.

The historical and ongoing contributions of Black women in early childhood education are a testament to their resilience, dedication, and unwavering commitment to nurturing the minds of our youngest learners. Despite facing systemic barriers and historical injustices, Black women have played a pivotal role in shaping the landscape of child care in the United States. From the early days of dependence on enslaved Black women to the establishment of organizations like the National Association of Club Women, Black women have been at the forefront of advocating for quality education and support for children. Their activism, rooted in principles of mutual aid, self-determination, and advocacy, continues to pave the way for a more equitable and inclusive early childhood education system. By confronting the systemic racism that underpins the child care profession and implementing targeted policies to dismantle structural barriers, we can continue working towards a more equitable system that upholds the dignity and economic security of all child care professionals. As we honor the invaluable contributions and stories of Black women in early childhood education, let us also recognize the need to uplift and support their tireless dedication in shaping the future generation of learners.

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Vicki Robert