August 10, 2015


Photo by Bill Ray

June just wrote this compelling article, recalling her experiences with SUMMER HEAD START AND THE WATTS UPRISING:  August 1965.  We hope that it will spark discussion with you and your families about this tremendously turbulent time and how much work is still left to do.  Please let us know your thoughts.

Here goes history again with my commentary on events big and small and the way I view them.*  

This time I would like to tell you about my take on  “ The Watts Uprising” or as many called it “The Watts Riots” and the beginning of Head Start and how I was involved.

In the Spring of 1965, I was working for the School for Nursery Years/Center for Early Education (CEE). Previously I had enrolled there for training as a nursery school teacher after which I had been hired as a training teacher in charge of the “baby group” of three-and-four year olds.  When the Center was asked to set up a cooperative school for young children and their families at the Aliso Village Housing Project, I volunteered. I used to take CEE students from the Westside to the Eastside of Los Angeles on a daily basis to teach and to be taught. We all learned a great deal from that experience (more than I can describe in this brief essay, but needless to say, it was exhilarating, as well as frustrating).  The adult students and I were convinced from the housing project results, that low-income children and their families deserved to have programs that many middle and upper middle class parents took for granted. 

About that time, we heard rumblings that Sargent Shriver, the head of the Office of Economic Opportunity, was thinking about inaugurating a program for young poor children.This was the chance we were hoping for.  I talked this over with the administrators of CEE, who took the issue to their Board  ( mainly composed of psychoanalysts) and received the approval to write a proposal to the Office of Economic Opportunity, headed by Sargent Shriver. A dear friend and administrator at CEE, June Mayne, met with me in March of 1965 and we wrote a proposal to OEO, thinking we could help those Washington folks crystallize a program.  We burned the midnight oil.  We thought the proposal was terrific, but we received no immediate response. 

 Finally, sometime in late May 1965, we heard that there would be a Summer Head Start program and CEE would be one of the delegate agencies. We did not receive our categorical breakdown until July 6--- the first day of programming for the children.

By then, we had recruited teachers, assistant teachers, aides and volunteers so that each group would have three adults to 15 children.

With that whirlwind of activity  (and there many volunteers who helped), we recruited 1,108 children in places all over the County.
·      We   enlisted volunteer pediatricians so that each
child was visited at their site by these doctors;
·    We   enlisted volunteer dentists to visit each child at their site;
·      We enlisted volunteers from a group that would later become Thalians,  to be on call if a teacher felt that a child might need some psychological help, or if the teacher might need some support in her work with the children and/or their families;
·      We  organized a committee headed by Suzy Klemer to provide educational and art material and have it packaged so that teachers could have this available in the trunks of their cars (storage space was a real problem at many sites)  Scrapbooks were made for each child and his or her younger siblings;
·       Other volunteers were recruited to work directly with the children including dance, art, literature and much more.

It was a wild and sometimes bumpy road, but we went
on despite the uncertainty hoping for a better world.

However, there were two incidents that will complete the picture of why the Watts Uprising is an important part of this history.  In August, 1965 Wattswas in turmoil and it was in the middle of our program where  many of our sites were located and isolated.  We received a call from a teacher in Watts saying that there were some families without basic resources and especially in need of diapers.  We didn’t think twice before telling her we would come with diapers and more.  June and I  loaded my car, a green four door Lincoln, with canned foods and Pampers  purchased at the local Ralph's; we draped a Head Start flag on the top of the car and off we went. When we were stopped by the National Guard, they looked at the flag, the merchandise in the back seat, and two “sweet-looking” middle aged women and they decided to let us bypass the barriers.   Shaken, but undeterred, we delivered the goods to a Head Start site and grateful families.

The other incident that I recall, as if it were today, concerned a night meeting we held at Nickerson Gardens Housing Project in Watts, prior to the start of Summer Head Start.  June and I planned to go to the gathering to gain support of the parents, whose children we hoped would attend HS.  Sam (Sale) joined us, thinking we needed a male guardian.  During the meeting, a father stood up and asked me “ Why won’t the government give me a job so I can take care of my family, instead of giving this measly program for my kids?”  I had no answer.  I think it is a question that still needs an answer.

* History is often in the eye of the beholder.  This is the way I remembered that event over 50 years ago, so there may be some things that are not the way they have been reported, but they are still vivid in my somewhat “elder-headed” memory.  No need to fact-check with Politico