As remembered by Crystal R. Sanders
March 19, 2014
Polly Hoben Greenberg died on December 27, 2013 in Washington, D.C. Her family will celebrate her life on Sunday, April 27, 2014 in a memorial service in McLean, VA. Polly made lasting contributions to the War on Poverty, early childhood education, and the African American freedom struggle in Mississippi. She served in President John Kennedy's Education Department, President Lyndon Johnson's Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), and President Jimmy Carter's Health, Education, and Welfare Department. Despite her numerous professional successes, she was most proud of her five daughters and eighteen grandchildren.
I came to know Polly through her work with the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM), which was one of the largest inaugural Head Start programs in the country. CDGM operated from 1965 until 1968 throughout Mississippi and sought to continue SNCC's earlier work. CDGM aimed to improve black life through early childhood education, adequate healthcare, nutritious meals, and well-paying jobs independent of the local white power structure. Polly, in her role as the Senior Head Start Program Analyst for OEO's Southeast region, helped to ensure that the Magnolia State had at least one Head Start program that complied with civil rights law. After receiving numerous Head Start applications from white school superintendents who intended to maintain the racial status quo, she reached out to Tom Levin, a psychoanalyst who had worked in Mississippi during Freedom Summer. Levin's reluctant interest in the federal preschool program led to mass meetings at Mount Beulah where working-class black Mississippians overwhelmingly expressed their interest in Head Start.
After OEO awarded CDGM a $1.4 million grant to run an eight-week 1965 summer program, Polly left her federal government job and relocated to Mississippi with her daughters in tow, where she oversaw teacher training. CDGM's program stood out that summer because of its teaching staff. Black women with little formal education led CDGM classrooms. In employing disadvantaged black children's parents as educators, the children had the opportunity to see their parents as leaders in positions of authority. Polly, who had studied at Sarah Lawrence College and was considered one of the foremost early childhood education experts in the nation, assisted these untraditional educators with curriculum, pedagogy, and classroom management. Many of the women who became CDGM teachers had formerly worked as sharecroppers and domestics. CDGM offered them higher wages, skills that would be transferable to future jobs, and the opportunity to return to school for GEDs and bachelor's degrees.
Polly was officially employed with CDGM until June 1966, although she worked behind the scenes for several additional months. In 1969, she published a book about her Mississippi Head Start experience titled The Devil Has Slippery Shoes. In later years, she continued her early childhood education work, serving as the editor of the professional journal of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). She also authored several other books including Oh, Lord, I Wish I Was a Buzzard. Of the numerous awards that she received throughout her lifetime, Polly was most grateful for a proclamation presented to her in 1990 by the Reverend James McRee and Lavaree Jones recognizing her CDGM work. Polly's spirit and her commitment to giving every child a head start, a healthy start, and a fair start will be missed.
Crystal R. Sanders