Niemeyer Series Welcomes Crystal R. Sanders

On May 16, educator, historian, and author Crystal R. Sanders presented a powerful lecture at Bank Street College of Education titled “More Than Cookies and Crayons: Head Start and the Mississippi Black Freedom Struggle.” Her keynote address was part of the College’s Niemeyer Series, an annual forum that examines critical issues in education.

Crystal R. Sanders presenting at the podium at the 2024 Niemeyer SeriesThis year, the lecture marked the start of Alumni Weekend, a yearly opportunity for graduates from Bank Street Graduate School of Education and Bank Street School for Children to reconnect and learn about new programs and research happening at the College.

The event coincided with the 70th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision and was held to commemorate the landmark case, which declared the state-sanctioned segregation of schools based on children’s race unconstitutional.

In her presentation, Sanders discussed the federal Head Start preschool program—with a focus on the origins of Head Start in Mississippi—and its impact on transforming early childhood education, addressing inequities, and empowering Black communities. More specifically, she explored the crucial role of the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM), one of the largest inaugural Head Start programs in the state.

From 1965 through 1968, CDGM operated more than 80 centers across the state, including 50 centers in the Black-majority Delta region, and served 6,000 children. According to Sanders, CDGM offers lessons about how early childhood education can be a “vehicle for inclusion and social justice.”

Sanders explained that Mississippi had managed to maintain segregation in its elementary and secondary schools until 1964—a decade after the Brown decision—due to strong opposition from local and state governments and communities. She noted that “Black parents understood that Head Start would provide their children with a different educational experience, one that was not predicated on the notion of Black inferiority.”

“CDGM staff saw developing Black children’s capabilities as a way to change society,” said Sanders as she explained that the goals of CDGM’s early childhood education program were similar to those of the earlier freedom movement. “They taught their students not just letters and numbers, but how to ask questions and think for themselves… Skills that also prepared these children to question the status quo.”

Additionally, Sanders emphasized that the program’s commitment to culturally relevant education and community involvement made it a model for inclusion and social justice, despite facing widespread resistance, such as economic reprisals, violence, and arson. 

“CDGM teachers understood that culturally relevant teaching empowered students by helping them to see themselves, their culture, and their community in learning materials,” she said, highlighting a reading readiness program through which students used materials from their homes to create their own storybooks. Sanders explained that this helped Black children feel seen, and kept them from “feeling as if they were excluded from children’s books, which usually revolved around the lives of middle-class White children.”

Sanders also touched on the connection between Bank Street and the Head Start work in Mississippi. She shared that Claudia Lewis, a longtime member of the Bank Street College faculty and Children’s Book Committee and distinguished children’s book expert, frequently traveled to Mississippi in 1966 and 1967 to offer workshops on children’s literature and storytelling. In addition, several CDGM teachers attended intensive training at Bank Street, which they brought back to Mississippi to enhance early childhood education across the state.

To conclude her talk, Sanders responded to several questions from attendees, including about the status of Head Start in Mississippi today. “Head Start is still a vibrant statewide educational opportunity in Mississippi as it is across the country,” she said, noting that there is more demand than space available in the program. “We can truly see better outcomes for young people when they have the opportunity to engage in a Head Start program.”

Crystal Sanders and members from the Bank Street community at the Niemeyer Series 2024Following the lecture, attendees gathered in the lobby to enjoy refreshments and view materials from the Bank Street Archives that showcased the College’s history with the national Head Start program. Bank Street’s connection to Head Start dates back to 1965 as its president, John Niemeyer—the namesake of the lecture series—played an integral role in the formation of the national program.

Bank Street also created the 42nd Street Early Childhood Model Head Start Training Center in 1965, which ceased operations in the 1970s. Head Start programs were revived at Bank Street in the 1990s, and today, Bank Street Head Start provides meaningful, play-based learning experiences and culturally responsive education for children in the East Village.

“We were proud to come together as a community to hear this enlightening presentation by Dr. Sanders, who has thoughtfully documented the often overlooked Head Start educators in Mississippi,” said Amy Stuart Wells, Dean, Graduate School of Education. “Her work is deeply tied to Bank Street and our second president in their vision and commitment to social justice and a struggle toward civil rights and the power of education to change our society.”

Epic Theatre Ensemble performing at the 2024 Niemeyer SeriesIn addition to the keynote presentation, this year’s Niemeyer Series lecture featured a compelling performance titled “Why Teach?” by Epic Theatre Ensemble, a professional social justice theater company that aims to create bold work with and for diverse communities that promotes vital discourse and social change.

Sanders is an Associate Professor of African American Studies, Emory University, and the author of A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi’s Black Freedom Struggle, among other publications. She is also the recipient of many honors and awards.