Polly H. Greenberg, an author and child development specialist who was instrumental in creating one of the earliest Head Start programs in Mississippi during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on poverty,” died Dec. 27 at the Washington Home hospice. She was 81 and a District resident.
The cause was heart complications, said a granddaughter, Rosi Greenberg.
Mrs. Greenberg was education director and one of three founders of the Child Development Group of Mississippi, a grass-roots community action group that launched the state’s Head Start program in 1965.
Head Start was a part of Johnson’s Great Society agenda — a series of domestic, anti-poverty social programs that aimed to improve the living conditions of poor people and provided services, such as medical care, meals and education, to low-income families.
The project in Mississippi, which predominantly served poor, black preschool children, had at its height more than $5 million in grant funding and an enrollment of more than 10,000 children.
The anti-poverty program faced strong opposition from segregationists, old-line Southern politicians and even some members of the black community. It was ultimately cut after its first year.
In 1969, she published a history of the program, the drama surrounding its defunding and an account of her experience, “The Devil Has Slippery Shoes.”
It was, she wrote, “just as short and temporary as all other Head Starts that first summer. But to us . . . it was a factor in the opening of the ‘closed society’ of Mississippi.”
Her other books included the children’s picture book “Oh, Lord, I Wish I Was a Buzzard” and a book on parenting, “How to Convert the Kids From What They Eat to What They Oughta.” For nearly 30 years, she had regular columns in two Scholastic magazines.
From 1986 until her retirement in 2001, she worked as an editor of Young Children, a publication of the D.C.-based National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Polly Hoben was born April 21, 1932, in Milwaukee, where her father was editor in chief of the Milwaukee Journal. She was a 1954 graduate of Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., and moved to Washington in 1956.
She subsequently was a staff member at the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare during the John F. Kennedy administration and again during the Jimmy Carter administration.
She also was a senior political analyst for the old Office of Economic Opportunity’s Head Start program during the Johnson administration.
Among other jobs, she was a staff development specialist consultant for a number of schools in the District and for 18 years taught evening child and family courses at the University of Maryland.
Her marriage to Daniel S. Greenberg, a Washington journalist and syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science, ended in divorce. Survivors include four daughters from the marriage, Rabbi Julie Greenberg of Philadelphia, Dr. Miggie Greenberg of St. Louis, Katie Greenberg of Asheville, N.C., and Liza Greenberg of Bethesda; a daughter from a relationship, Gwen Bradley of Washington; a brother; and 18 grandchildren.