Many Auburn people are familiar with the wonderful work of Samuel Mockbee, humanitarian, visionary and founder of the Rural Studio. Well established in five rural counties of Alabama’s Black Belt, the studio has built more than 200 projects and educated hundreds of what it calls “citizen architects” in this beautiful but impoverished landscape. For his gentle but unrelenting focus on “doing good,” Mockbee was awarded the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellow “Genius Award” the year before his untimely death on Dec. 30, 2001. His work is rightly cherished by Auburn and the world.
Lesser known to the Auburn Family, but a beloved beacon to working families across the country, is Auburn’s only other MacArthur winner. In 1991, ten years before Mockbee’s recognition, 1972 Auburn grad Sophia Bracy Harris was honored by the foundation for her efforts to improve child care in Alabama and around the country, with the goal of creating democratic systems of high-quality, inclusive care. As the founding director of the Federation of Child Care Centers of Alabama, or FOCAL, Harris’s work took the organization far beyond providing day-care for low-income families. For more than 40 years she inspired the organization’s successes at setting national child-care quality standards, educating lawmakers and policy directors, training hundreds of child care workers and activists and furthering Black community development.
Now, four years into a well-earned retirement, Harris has completed a book of her life and work. The memoir is entitled Finding My Own Way: A Journey to Wholeness Against the Odds.
Harris’s iconic journey began with her birth at home in rural Elmore County, Alabama, at Redland, a few miles east of Wetumpka. One of eight children born to hard-working farmers Roosevelt and Mittie Marie Bracy, Harris was a nurturer from her earliest years, caring for her younger siblings. In spite of her family’s dire poverty and being what she called “a sickly child,” her soft voice and polite demeanor belied a fierce sense of pride in who she was and an awareness of the racism that was a part of her everyday life.
That awareness was never so keen as on the night of Jan. 1, 1966, when her family’s modest cinderblock home was destroyed by firebombs in retaliation for her and her sister Debra’s integration of the previously all-white Wetumpka High School. At school she was shamed, belittled and threatened, but stuck it out in spite of the very real dangers to herself, her family and her church and farm communities.
After two years in a nearby community college, Harris enrolled in the nearly all-white Auburn University in 1970. At Auburn, she felt the sting of segregation but also found kindred spirits. Her roommate at Cox Dorm became a lifelong friend, and the pair are church members together in Montgomery. She also experienced transformation in her child development and early childhood education classes. Harris’s professors challenged her previously-held ideas of discipline and authority over children. And it was in her last quarter at Auburn in January of 1972 that she balanced final exams with a gathering of women at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama. The gathering was called in response to Alabama’s newly-enacted Child Care Act of 1971 that, in effect, restricted Black women’s abilities to open and operate day care centers. That meeting was ultimately the catalyst for launching FOCAL.
While the remainder of the book details the struggles and triumphs of FOCAL, it also explores Harris’s own journey to overcome a belief common to many great leaders: that she was not worthy, or good enough, to be leading such a courageous and valiant effort. So like all great memoirs, the book is a journey of self-discovery.
As Harris’s friend and colleague Gloria Steinem writes, “Sophia is not only a rare and trusted bridge between the most needy and the most able to create change, she knows how to bring them together as allies and friends. Her story personifies history in the way that it grows deepest and most lasting, like a tree, from the ground up.”