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. It was after midnight, and soon everyone in the house was asleep.
The peaceful setting was shattered when a series of homemade firebombs crashed through the windows, causing the small cinderblock Bracy home to explode into flames. All 11 family members escaped, but they lost everything.
“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.”
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, she was also able to get Pell Grants, loans and a partial scholarship from the NAACPLegal Defense and Educational Fund. But the scholarship stipulated she must attend a majority-white school.
She felt drawn to Auburn because of something from her past.
“As a teenager, I had visited Auburn as the guest of Jerry Roden, a white man who was an English instructor at Auburn,” she said. “Jerry, a progressive leader in the Alabama Council on Human Relations, tutored me and Debra. 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.”
At Auburn, Bracy sifted through majors before eventually settling on family and child development.
Just before graduation, Bracy was invited to a meeting in Selma where African-American child care activists gathered to express concerns over a new Alabama law that required a complicated—and often arbitrary—licensing process for child care facilities.
From the Selma meeting, Harris was able to work with child care advocates such as 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 a pervasive belief that it’s not enough to just tell people things—you need to work with them in their own communities—Bracy joined with those Selma activists in 1972 to form the organization now known as FOCAL, the Federation of Child Care Centers of Alabama.
FOCAL’s mission broadened from providing day care for low-income families, to establishing child care standards and providing teacher development.
For her success overcoming a systemic deprivation of community-based child care centers in poor communities, Harris was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1991.
“I made a commitment to not give 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.”