In July 2008, Dr. Julius B. Richmond passed away at age 91 at his home outside Boston. Dr. Richmond served as U.S. Surgeon General under President Jimmy Carter. He was a pediatrician, professor of medicine, a child development specialist, and a co-creator and the first director of Head Start. He understood early on how crucial a quality, comprehensive child development program could be for the physical, emotional and educational health of all children—especially poor and at-risk children. The millions of children and families who have been served by Head Start since its beginnings owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude.
Dr. Richmond received a medical degree from the University of Illinois and served as a flight surgeon in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. After the war, he returned to teach medicine at his alma mater. Long committed to the well-being of children, Dr. Richmond, known to his friends as “Juli” was active in child welfare organizations from the beginning of his career. In 1953 he moved to the State University of New York’s Syracuse College of Medicine as chair of the department of pediatrics. The Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision one year later inspired him and colleague Dr. Betty Caldwell to begin studying how poverty affected the development of infants and preschoolers. They discovered that by the time children in poor families were 18 months old their intellectual and emotional development began to slow down. Drs. Richmond and Caldwell realized that poor nutrition, the lack of proper health care, and other factors related to growing up in poverty were already beginning to affect these children’s ability to learn.
The doctors also realized that exposing children to a high-quality learning environment as early as possible could make a difference in minimizing and reversing these losses. The vision began to take shape as an innovative early childhood program that comprised quality education teaching children letters and colors but also providing breakfasts and lunches, access to health care, workshops for parents, and all the needed supports for poor families to give their children the best possible start. In 1964, Sargent Shriver, the head of the then new federal Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) in Washington, asked Dr. Richmond to join him at the agency and to go to Mississippi to develop two public health initiatives that would directly aid local families. The first, which Dr. Richmond began in 1965, was Project Head Start.
As the first and only Black woman lawyer in Mississippi at the time, I experienced what Dr. Richmond described as the harsh resistance he and his colleagues encountered as OEO began establishing centers serving primarily poor Black children. White protestors threatened workers, and churches and other buildings that housed the centers were targeted. But that didn’t stop Dr. Richmond, the Child Development Group of Mississippi, or other local partners in the venture from doing what they needed to do. Within its first six months, Head Start went national and was serving 500,000 children at 2,700 sites in Mississippi and around the country.
A second OEO project Dr. Richmond coordinated was to establish a group of Neighborhood Health Centers to carry out the mission of making health care more accessible to low-income families. He returned to New York in 1967 after nearly three years as assistant director for health affairs at OEO, and in 1971 moved to Harvard Medical School as a professor in child psychiatry and human development and preventive and social medicine. At Harvard he also directed the Judge Baker Center, a nonprofit Boston organization focused on children’s mental health needs.
Dr. Richmond continued promoting the health and well-being of children and families when he became Surgeon General in 1977, and was responsible for many other innovative public health programs including aggressive anti-smoking campaigns and a focus on disease prevention. After serving as Surgeon General, he returned to Harvard and his research on health policy and education. In 2006, Harvard launched its new university-wide Center on the Developing Child with a symposium in Dr. Richmond’s honor. The Center now awards annual Julius B. Richmond Fellowships.
Throughout his long committed life, Julie Richmond inspired fellow doctors, countless students, and so many others who care about the healthy development of America’s children and the advancement of families. Head Start is just one shining jewel of his very long legacy. I am so grateful for all Dr. Julius Richmond did for children and for his personal inspiration and support of the Children’s Defense Fund.