Celebrating Black History Month: Pioneers in Early Childhood Education

February 22, 2022

This blog was originally published on Feb. 15, 2021. We thought that this blog is worth a repost.

To celebrate and commemorate this year’s Black History Month, we will be highlighting 10 African American pioneers in the field of early childhood education and advocacy. These men and women devoted their lives to fighting for better quality education for young children, especially African American children. From the field of childhood psychology to policy advocacy to pioneering new teaching methods, these individuals have made their marks over the course of more than a century. 

By showcasing these 10 individuals, we’re telling just a small part of the story of how early childhood education continues to move forward. The work we do at Illinois Action For Children exists in large part due to the work of those that came before us, never ceasing the fight for equal access and quality of care. We hope that you’ll not only enjoy learning more about the journey of early childhood education, but will feel impassioned to join our fight to ensure that the work of these trailblazers continues.

Betsey Stockton

Born into slavery in 1798, Betsey Stockton became nationally known for her prowess as an educator for children under the age of 5. Stockton was emancipated at the age of 20, and began her career as a missionary, traveling to Hawaii where she taught Hawaiian and missionary children before teaching at the church there as well.

Upon returning to the United States in 1826, Stockton worked for two years before being recruited by the Infant School Society of Philadelphia to teach at the new African American infant school, one of the first of its kind. There she learned teaching methods that she would take with her for the next three decades, spending nearly 30 years teaching at the Witherspoon School for Colored Children in Princeton, New Jersey.

Betsey Stockton spent her life serving her communities, learning how to speak five languages, and developing her own teaching skills as new methods were created domestically. In 2018, Princeton University created a garden in her name, commemorating the impact she had teaching preschool children in and around the community. Learn more here.

Selena Sloan Butler

Inspired by the birth of her first son, Selena Sloan Butler pursued education upon realizing she could not find a kindergarten for Black children near her home in Atlanta. Butler started a kindergarten in her living room until her son enrolled in public school, when she then formed the nation’s first Black parent-teacher association.

The success of Butler’s programs led to the creation of the Georgia Colored Parent-Teacher Association and later the National Colored Congress of Parents and Teachers. Butler went on to work on the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection and with the Nursery School Association in England. In 1970, the NCCPT merged with its white counterpart to form an integrated National Congress of Parents and Teachers, of which Butler is recognized as a co-founder. Learn more here.

Edmund Gordon

As a founder of the federal Head Start Program in 1965, Edmund Gordon has spent his lengthy career laser-focused on improving the conditions under which children grow up. Gordon began his career as a psychologist working as a counselor for school-age students before beginning his work at the Center for Advanced Studies at Stanford University to pursue progressive social change under the Kennedy administration.

Gordon was tasked with evaluating and leading the reshaping of Head Start into the program we know today. Additionally, Gordon founded the Institute for Urban Education in 1973, where he spent time as the dean of the Institute. Today, Gordon continues his decades-long work to improve equal education for all students. Learn more here.

Inez Beverly Prosser

A pioneer in early childhood mental health, Inez Beverly Prosser was America’s first Black female psychologist. Prosser taught in south-central Texas for 18 years at a Black elementary school, and then a high school, before earning a PhD in psychology in 1933, the first earned by a woman of her race. 

While studying for her doctorate at the University of Cincinnati, Prosser published her dissertation examining self-esteem and personality variables in matched pairs of Black middle-school children, half of which attended segregated schools while the other half attended integrated schools. Controversial at the time, Prosser’s research showed that Black children attending segregated schools were better adjusted socially and experienced less prejudice from teachers and fellow students than those attending integrated schools. Her work was supported by prominent African-Americans such as W.E.B. DuBois, and laid the groundwork for creating more positive experiences for Black children for decades to come. Learn more here.


Ron Herndon

Serving as the executive director of Albina Head Start in Portland, Oregon for four decades, Ron Herndon has been a trailblazer in innovation and kindergarten readiness for children across the country. Herndon is a former National Head Start Association board chairman, the impact of which can still be seen in Head Start programs today. 

In Portland, Herndon opened an independent school for Black children before being chosen to lead Albina’s Head Start program. Herndon has established a partnership with Nike World Headquarters, resulting in a percentage share of sales being donated to local organizations, along with a number of other successful initiatives Herndon has undertaken during his time as a local leader. To this day, Herndon’s Albina program continues to raise the bar for innovation in the Head Start community, pushing what is possible for children to receive out of their early education. Learn more here. 

Dr. Evelyn Moore

The founder of the National Black Child Development Institute, Dr. Evelyn Moore spent 38 years leading the organization to improve and advance early education for young African American children. Moore is a champion of universal childcare and access to high-quality early childhood education for all children, regardless of their race or socioeconomic status. Today, Moore pushes policymakers to invest in the early childhood workforce, investing not only in their teaching abilities, but their abilities to better understand human and cognitive development. Learn more here.

Marva Collins

Known as one of the most influential educators and civil rights activists in American history, Marva Collins created the Westside Preparatory School in Chicago, which served its local community for three decades. Collins was known for her teaching methods, influenced by her time growing up learning in a one-room schoolhouse, earning recognition from presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. 

Collins was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2004 for her teaching and education advocacy efforts in Chicago and around the country. Her work lives on in the thousands of students her work impacted, built around the premise that every student deserves the education they need to be successful. Learn more here.

Ida B. Wells

Known as a journalist, activist, and researcher, Ida B. Wells shed light on the conditions of African Americans across the South throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Wells undertook a campaign against lynching, traveling across the country to speak about the violence occurring, eventually relocating to Chicago to protect her own safety. 

While in Chicago, Wells was extremely influential in city affairs and in organizing local African American women, including founding the first Black woman suffrage group, the Alpha Suffrage Club. She also founded the Negro Fellowship League, aiding and assisting newly arrived migrants from the South. Wells devoted her life to justice for African Americans, using her position as a journalist and an educator to affect change in her city and beyond. Learn more here.

Dr. Horace Tate

After becoming the principal of Union Point, a school in Georgia, at the age of 20, Horace Tate was a trailblazer in Georgia’s education system for decades. After seeing the conditions his African American students were being subjected to, Tate set out to make changes. He became the first African American to earn a PhD from the University of Kentucky, then returned to Georgia where he became the first African American to run for mayor of Atlanta.

Tate also became the first executive director of the Georgia Association of Educators, Georgia Teachers Union, and the newly integrated Georgia Teachers and Education Association, where he established a legacy of joining Black teachers with white teachers to ensure equal quality and access to resources. For the final 16 years of his career, Tate was a key legislator in the Georgia State Senate, fighting for educational advancement and voting rights. Learn more here.

Barbara T. Bowman

A co-founder of the Erikson Institute, Barbara T. Bowman is a trailblazer in Chicago early education. Bowman is the Chicago Public Schools’ Chief Early Childhood Education Officer, helping to shape the ongoing work to create a more equitable and accessible early childhood system in the city. Learn more here.