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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Vivion Lenon Brewer, October 15, 1976. Interview G-0012. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Brewer's creation of early educational programs for black children in Little Rock

This passage reveals Brewer's progressive thinking on early education, which preceded federal Head Start options for low-income communities. Brewer canvassed a Little Rock black neighborhood to establish educational readiness programs for younger black children with other white volunteers. She discovered that blacks valued education despite the educational gaps produced by segregated schooling.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Vivion Lenon Brewer, October 15, 1976. Interview G-0012. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

ELIZABETH JACOWAY:
What other activities have you been involved with since that time?
VIVION LENON BREWER:
Well, my chief interests in this vein have been in the Scott community. In the first place, I found that there were two Negro schools, and this little point may interest you, that I asked white friends in the community about the schools and they would say, "I don't know. Where are they?" And they were not even aware of where these Negro schools were. I think the first thing I did was to try to get some books, because I discovered that the schools had no books at all. And so I collected a lot through a friend out at the Little Rock high school and the elementary schools.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY:
What were they doing out there if they didn't have any books?
VIVION LENON BREWER:
How do you think they learned? Why don't they know anything?
ELIZABETH JACOWAY:
Yes. Why can't they read?
VIVION LENON BREWER:
And the next thing I did was to get some volunteers, friends of mine, to come down and work in the schools. The teachers they had, they were dedicated, but they weren't, you know, really trained. And this was an attempt to give the children something more than they were getting. And at the end of the first year of doing this, the County Superintendent told me that Washington didn't want us to do it anymore.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY:
Washington!
VIVION LENON BREWER:
So we had to quit that. And I've thought since, you know, the new thing now is volunteers in the schools. (Laughs)
ELIZABETH JACOWAY:
That's right. You've always been ahead of your time. (Laughs)
VIVION LENON BREWER:
And then I went to a graduation exercise at one of the Negro schools--this was the sixth grade--and I sat there appalled that I understood so little they said. And this was the year the Scott white school was to be integrated. And I thought, "What will these children do? They'll go into that school. The teacher won't understand them. They won't understand the teacher. It's not only going to be a fact that they won't learn a thing, but they'll hold the whole class back." So I was able to get a small grant, and we set up a project that summer with four teachers, two blacks and two whites, trying to get them used to our language, trying to get them to feel at home with us. It worked fairly well. We tried it a second summer; it didn't work quite as well that summer, and I began to see that I was too late, that what we needed to do was start with the babies. And this is something I can't explain to you. I've thought about it so often, and I have no idea why it is so. I had an old carry-all at that time, and I went down into the heavily populated area of the county where there are so many of the black poverty people. And I would go from door to door and say, "I'm going to try to set up a day-care center to try to teach your little ones something before they have to go into the school." And without any question those parents would put their children in my car. I still don't understand this: why would they trust a woman they'd never seen before? But they did, and again I was able to get some volunteers in town (Little Rock), and we ran a really successful day-care center. The children, it was simply thrilling to see how they would develop. One little boy I remember, who had never uttered a sound, it was the greatest thrill the day we taught him to use a spoon to eat some ice cream. And he began to talk, began to make sounds. Now he was about four years old.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY:
Oh, is that right?
VIVION LENON BREWER:
And then my prize case was a little girl whom I took when she was three. And she cried all the time; she wouldn't talk. Couldn't get anything out of her for, oh, a couple of months. But she gradually got used to us, gradually brightened, just developed like wildfire, and when she went into the Scott school they didn't know what to do with her. She was so far beyond any of the other children (white or black).
ELIZABETH JACOWAY:
Oh, no. That was a problem you hadn't anticipated. (Laughs)
VIVION LENON BREWER:
No, I certainly hadn't. But they put her in the second grade to start with and then bounced her to the fourth.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY:
My heavens!
VIVION LENON BREWER:
Well, to me what it proved is that given a chance, these children can do something. So that part of it has been very thrilling.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY:
You were proving the same kinds of things my people were trying to prove at Penn School. (Laughs)
VIVION LENON BREWER:
Mm-hm. That's right. So it's been one project after the other over the years.