By George Littleton
On New Year’s Night, 1966, a teenaged Sophia Bracy and her sister Debra returned to their rural Elmore County home following a cherished annual tradition in the black community: the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. They told their family – which included parents Roosevelt and Marie Bracy and their other brothers and sisters and a cousin – about the powerful message of the guest preacher and their excitement for their own futures. It was after midnight, and soon everyone in the house was asleep.
The peaceful, pastoral setting was soon shattered when a series of home-made firebombs crashed through the windows, causing the small cinderblock Bracy home to explode into flames. All eleven family members escaped, but they lost everything in the fire.
“Our local paper reported that there was no foul-play involved, even though my father found one of the unexploded firebombs in the bed of his truck,” Harris recalled. “We were already a poor farming family. Now we were destitute.”
Commitment to education
Although they were poor, the Bracy family was strong. Marie, especially, had a passion to see her children educated, and allowed Sophia and Debra to be among the first few black students to integrate the previously all-white Wetumpka High School.
“We were treated with hatred and disdain,” Harris recalls of that difficult time. “We very much felt that it was our sacred obligation to represent our people well and succeed at the school. But two memories of that time stand out that reflect a truth that remains with me today.”
One episode involved Debra Bracy, who was expelled from the school for fighting back against a white boy who had hit her with a slingshot. She was hauled off to jail, though the boy was not punished. The night before Debra was scheduled to return to school was the night their home was firebombed.
“The second thing that stands out was in an English class,” Harris said. “I did not know the meaning of the word ‘utopia.’ The teacher called me out on it. She said, ‘You don’t know the meaning of this word, yet you think that you people deserve to be here in our school!’ From that one episode, from that very public shaming, I developed a life-long teaching philosophy. We must nurture our children and do all in our power to help them fend off the notion of inferiority that has been ingrained in them since the times of slavery. These experiences really began making sense for me in the next few years at Auburn.”
Leaving home for a new world
Upon her graduation from Wetumpka High School in 1968, Bracy had the opportunity to attend college on a scholarship. Since the family had no income at all, she was also able to get Pell Grants, loans, and a partial scholarship from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. But the scholarship stipulated that she must attend a majority-white school.
“To all of us growing up, Tuskegee was the pinnacle of success,” she said. “That was always my aspiration but many of the people from our community, including my brother, had not been able to succeed there. It was my dream to be at Tuskegee, but the scholarship requirement caused me to look at the two-year Alabama Christian College and at either Auburn or Alabama.”
She felt drawn to Auburn because of something from her past.
“As a young teenager, I had visited Auburn as the guest of Jerry Roden, a white man who was an English Instructor at Auburn,” she said. “The American Friends Service Committee had gotten Jerry, who was a progressive and a leader in the Alabama Council on Human Relations, to serve as a tutor for me and Debra. Our mother would drive us to Auburn and we would spend the weekend in the home of Jerry and his wife Rebecca, who worked at the Graduate School. Jerry saw that I had a knack for writing and he encouraged me in the same way that I now try to encourage children from vulnerable backgrounds.”
Upon enrolling at Auburn, Bracy lived in Cox Dorm on North Donahue Drive. Her first impression of the campus was how large it was. As she sifted through different options for her major, she eventually settled on Family and Child Development.
“I was arrogant,” she said. “I had been raising my younger siblings since I was six years old and was used to discipline and authority. But at Auburn I became fascinated by how much a child learns at an early age, and fascinated by my teachers, especially Mary Lynn Porter. She was staunch. In our work with children at the Child Study Center, she did not allow us to say ‘no’ or ‘stop’ to a child. If you did that you failed that day.”
Bracy’s exploration into child learning, school settings, and how these things impacted a child’s self-esteem, were all life-changing. She began making the total connection between her new knowledge of child development and the public shaming she had received at Wetumpka High School.
Sophia Harris at Auburn, 1971
A new world on the Plains
“At Auburn I had an African-American roommate; our suitemates were white,” she said. “We ate together, but did not socialize together. Through my roommate, I made connections in Auburn’s black community, and I had that longstanding relationship with Jerry Roden that helped me in many ways.”
Harris said although there was a clear understanding that Auburn was a white institution, she did not experience overt racism from her professors. In addition to Mary Lynn Porter, Harris also developed a strong relationship with Dean June Hinton.
“In my last quarter at Auburn someone explained how I could take just a few more courses and get a degree in early childhood education, but I was less focused on the curriculum and degree than I was on sharing my new-found knowledge and understanding with others from my community. Little did I know that I was about to get that chance, and the chance of a lifetime.”
New laws designed to shut down black child care centers
Shortly before her Auburn graduation, Bracy was invited by Winifred Green to attend a meeting at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Selma. There, African-American childcare activists gathered to explore shared concerns over a new Alabama law that required a complicated – and often arbitrary – licensing process for childcare facilities.
“This was right in the middle of finals, but I knew that I had to be there,” Harris said. “The people there were so reminiscent of the teachers and Sunday School leaders who inspired me as I grew up in Elmore County. And now, all these years later, they were facing hardships that I understood and could help with. A new law requiring every child care facility to obtain a license was being arbitrarily enforced. Many of the women who traditionally took care of the children were being denied a license. So at the meeting in Selma the question was where this was going. As integration was beginning there was so much displacement of African-American teachers and principals. How could our children be nurtured and protected by teachers who considered them to be less than human beings?”
This culmination of new learning and past experiences gave Harris a transcendent feeling.
“I felt that God had placed me here,” she said. “I thought of everything those people in Elmore County put on the line for me, how they took risks for me. I knew that I could not let them down. I knew I had to wade into this fight.”
Along with these restrictive laws, this was also the time of the War on Poverty and the beginning of Head Start. Congress also passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1972. If the bill had become law it would have provided a national daycare system to help single parents work and raise children. But the bill was vetoed by President Nixon, who tied it to elements of Communism. Southern conservatives reacted negatively to these programs, and Congress failed to override the veto. Bracy understood that it was a critical moment in history.
The birth of FOCAL
From the Selma meeting, Harris was able to meet and intern with child care advocates like Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund. She learned the principles of community control, the importance of training teachers and advocates, and how to provide technical assistance to meet the demands of the law. With these tools, and a pervasive belief that it’s not enough to just tell people things as opposed to working with them in their own communities, the young Sophia Bracy joined with those attending the Selma meeting to form the organization in 1972, now known as FOCAL, the Federation of Child Care Centers of Alabama.
As it grew, FOCAL’s mission broadened from providing day care for low-income families, to establishing child care standards, providing professional development for teachers, and working for economic development in black communities. She has also lobbied successfully for increased funding for childcare.
For her success in these and other areas, especially for overcoming, against all odds, a systemic plan to prevent the implementation of community-based child care centers in poor communities, Harris was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1991.
How did Harris rise above abject poverty, and the Wetumpka shaming episode that was so central in her life, to achieve such success and empower thousands of other poor people?
“I made a commitment to not give my power over to evil and ignorance, and instead to educate ourselves and push back against a deeply-ingrained belief, from slavery, that we aren’t equal. I was determined to help others see that we don’t have to stay in that place. I try to live that every day.”
Harris retired in 2015 after 43 years of living that truth and leading FOCAL.
“I feel satisfied that I have given with passion and gusto as best as I could,” Harris said. “My granddaughter said recently that I didn’t know how to have fun – go to a movie, or spend the day in the park. I need to ask her how I can learn to do that.”
“But I also feel a need to share with the next generation the effort it takes to create a better world, and to help them see that every generation must fight for its own freedom. The residuals of slavery continue to impact our country through the mass incarceration of black men. But this is even more true in the minds of our kids with poor educations. This situation will continue to produce people of all races who are ill-equipped to move our democracy forward. Education can change all of that. Schools can and should play a central role in combatting the problems within our democracy.”
Even as Harris was saying these things, the Alabama House of Representatives was debating an $800 million bond issue for new prisons while an insurance board voted to raise fees on public school teachers. The contradiction was not lost on her.
“What I learned at Auburn, including my graduate classes in the College of Education at AUM, allowed me to make the connection between what I heard that transformational day in Selma and what happened to me in a Wetumpka class room. That understanding led me to do the things that I have been able to do. And I thank God for it.”