By Dianne Anderson
In coming to San Bernardino with her Ph.D. in hand in the early 1980s, Dr. Mildred Dalton Hampton-Henry held the beginnings of a novel idea.
What if she could reach underserved kids and teens, and show them what it means to be successful – all at a time when local high school dropout rates and expulsions for Black kids topped 55 percent.
That idea went over like a lead balloon at Cal State University, San Bernardino, where she was expected to instead work her way up through academia with writings and observations.
Meanwhile, Black and Brown kids were becoming fodder for the prison system.
At the time, Dr. Henry specialized in training counselors and teachers to understand the negative impact of ignoring any child’s cultural background. Eventually, she became the first African American tenured in the College of Education at CSUSB, and the first African American with Professor Emeritus status there.
But none of it came without a fight. In her own way, she bucked the bias of the system to earn full professorship at the university. By 1983, she founded the Provisional Accelerated Learning (PAL) Center in Muscoy, which has since worked with thousands of local kids and teens in academic and training programs.
Still, she was facing the same kinds of obstacles as her students, but it was not in unfamiliar territory.
Having grown up in Pine Bluff Arkansas, The Ku Klux Klan three times blazed their family’s small farm Cotton Jin and tried to burn down their home. Whites Only signs were everywhere. Up through the 1960s in the South, Black students couldn’t attend school for over six months a year so they picked cotton under Jim Crow laws.
Her mother, undeterred in her fight against racist real estate practices, bought another home out of town so her children could attend school year-round.
“They didn’t have integration at the time. They had to move out of Pine Bluff, buy a house, so that we could finish high school, and go to the Black college,” Dr. Henry said.
Throughout school, Dr. Henry struggled with a painful childhood disability. Her father carried her in his arms, or she used knee pads or a wheelchair. In high school, she was determined to walk on crutches to accept her diploma, which landed her in the hospital the next day.
All of it prepared her for California.
“I was told at Cal State that, ‘No, we are not going to promote you because you’re not doing enough what we say you should do, — as opposed to what I knew the community needed,” she said.
What the kids needed, and deserved, was more than observations in a fishbowl. She was interested in the practical application of education and counseling programs.
In all her years as an education counselor, she said the most important aspect for Black and Brown kids is that race is not a factor in their achievement. That happens too often in the current education system, but she said there is a way to reverse the damage.
Her higher education started at HBCU Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal (AM&N) College. Until then, she never held a new textbook because all books were sent to the Black schools from across town after the white kids used them.
“It really did something to our self-esteem, a feeling of less than,” she said. “Our teachers told us don’t worry that they’re used books. Learn what’s on the pages.”
Throughout high school, her Black teachers pressed students to be better, to fight the toxicity, to stand taller.
“We had role models that taught us to be proud of who we were. They worked with us and the parents to help us get through school. The impact of one’s culture on their achievement, it’s still is the same,” said Dr. Henry, who recently released her book now on Amazon, “From the Ashes I Rise: Dare to Do the Impossible.”
Much of what she learned about endurance was ingrained from her parents and teachers. There was pride in knowing the truth of history that is still hidden, that Blacks in America come from kings and queens.
That knowledge increased her self-esteem immeasurably.
“I teach Black history all year long because I’m Black all year long, and Black students need to know and be exposed to the positivity of the culture and of their race,” she said.
She never had white teachers until she earned her master’s degree. But growing up, everything hinged on the strength of her parents, community and teachers who cared.
“I went from the mud and dirt of Arkansas to the hills of California with that sense of pride that was ingrained in me. You have a duty to help others. That’s what was ingrained in me in that historically Black environment,” she said.
She retired as CEO of the PAL Center in 2014, turning operations over to current CEO Dwaine Radden. Around the same time, the San Bernardino school board approved her namesake, the Dr. Mildred Dalton Henry Elementary School.
In 2006, her trip of a lifetime to Ghana was revealing. She glimpsed what life looks like when people aren’t forced to check a box based on color. Certainly, poverty must have been there, but she couldn’t see it. It was not as evident as the streets of San Bernardino where many of her students came from.
In Ghana, people had a quick smile, they loved education. Everyone was warm and welcoming. She saw pilots, administrators, professionals of every persuasion, all working without the slightest awareness of equality, just abilities.
It was a totally different environment.
“I want people to know that anything is possible if you put your mind to it,” she said. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you are less than. You are God’s child. You’re important and go for it.”