From Turmoil to Triumph

The major political events of the 1960s set the stage for the founding of the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, which forever changed education research and practice.

A woman and a man sit in an office type setting in the 1960s.
The FPG Child Development Institute was founded by Nancy (left) and Hal Robinson, two UNC psychologists, in 1966.
July 11th, 2017

By the time the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) was founded in 1966, President John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X had already been assassinated, the United States had committed 200,000 troops to Vietnam, and much of the decade’s most chilling violence had yet to come. Assassins would also gun down Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. The New York City Police Department would set off an infamous four-day riot by ­raiding a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn. U.S. officials would tout victories in Vietnam by comparing body counts, sending escalating numbers of troop overseas, and instituting the draft — and draft cards would burn.

This tumultuous decade inspired a movement that nourished lasting, organized commitments on behalf of peace, the poor, women, gays and lesbians, people of color, people with disabilities, and children.

“And few people were making the connection between inadequate environmental conditions and intellectual deficits in children,” FPG cofounder Nancy Robinson remarks years later. “The war on poverty and the war on ‘mental retardation’ were going on side by side, but nobody was saying they were the same one.” At the time, FPG became the sole center focusing on prevention — especially the prevention of problems resulting from childhood poverty.

She and husband Hal — both UNC psychologists — planned to establish a model child care center that offered comprehensive services to a small number of infants and toddlers — a place where specialists could also study their learning and development. The Robinsons and their small group of researchers wanted to determine to what extent high-quality child care could impact intellectual deficits in young children from at-risk families. They also wanted to explore the effects of group care for infants, as well as how children from different backgrounds could share the same settings.

“In the 1960s, there was talk about the ‘cycle of poverty’ and how generation after generation had problems in school and life,” says Joseph Sparling, who came to FPG in 1967. He subsequently co-created the curriculum for the most famous study in early childhood education and care: FPG’s Abecedarian Project.

“There was a sense of concern, because of the Civil Rights Movement, that there needed to be more equity in society and that universities needed to respond,” Sparling explains. “Educators and psychologists saw a social role for themselves. Until then, they primarily viewed their role as creating knowledge. There was a sweeping vision that we were not only going to do research in the field of ‘mental retardation,’ but also produce a program that had practical value to society.”

Establishing a “Great Society”

Kennedy planted the seeds to support an institute like FPG in key federal legislation he had signed into law the month before he was assassinated. His sister Rosemary had intellectual disabilities, which in large part — along with his sister Eunice’s encouragement — compelled him early on in 1963 to challenge Congress to significantly address mental illness and mental health by establishing interdisciplinary research centers that could profit from “the talents of our best minds.”

Not only did the subsequent Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act authorize funding for developmental research centers in university-affiliated facilities, but the law also specifically included provisions that supported universities in the construction of research centers. With Kennedy’s assassination the following month, the act marked the end of his planning for America’s “New Frontier” — but the legislation’s crucial, germinating effects would long outlive its biggest advocate.

After Johnson succeeded Kennedy, new programs and policies originating from the White House fueled his move to a “Great Society,” through which he fostered efforts to reduce inequalities in wealth, health, and education. Johnson signed Medicare and Medicaid into law, and when his “War on Poverty” zeroed in on the plight of children, the 1965 launch of Head Start began more than 50 years of federal funding for early education for children from low income families.

Inching toward inclusion

In this climate, researchers had also begun to consider how early education could affect the trajectories of young children in poverty. In fact, it was the seminal question for the Robinsons.

“It was wonderful to be living in a liberal community in the middle of the South, because it was a time of the Civil Rights Movement,” Nancy says. “There was a hopefulness about what could happen economically to our society and with inclusion of everybody — and that was very exciting and made a big difference in what we did there. The other movement at the same time was, of course, in ‘mental retardation.’” And, thanks to Kennedy’s pivotal legislation and the federal political context: “There was money.”

The Robinsons, with close colleagues at UNC, proposed building a center for mental disabilities that would include both behavioral and biological components. Early planners included members of the Chapel Hill School Board, then-school Superintendent Howard Thompson, and UNC’s Thelma Thurstone, Harriet Rheingold, and Ann Peters. The Robinsons would become FPG’s cofounders — and Hal its first director — when the National Institutes of Health awarded 12 grants to establish research centers across the nation to study and treat mental illness.

an older man gives a speech at a podium

Frank Porter Graham, the institute’s namesake, served as UNC system president from 1930 to 1949. He was also an alumnus (class of 1916) and professor of history. After holding a year-long seat as a North Carolina senator, he was eventually appointed assistant secretary general of the United Nations.

An airplane acquaintance

Why had the Robinsons chosen Frank Porter Graham as the namesake that would embody such extraordinary goals?

Some consider Graham to be the most renowned southern progressive of his time for promoting public education and for advocating on behalf of the less fortunate. From 1930 to 1949, he served as UNC system president. At Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s request, he chaired the president’s National Advisory Council on Social Security. Later in his career at UNC, Harry S. Truman named him to the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, and North Carolina’s governor appointed him to replace a U.S. senator from the state who had died after taking office.

Afterward, Graham flourished throughout a tenure spanning two decades as a diplomatic mediator and representative for the United Nations. More than 20 colleges and universities recognized him with honorary degrees, which comprise only a portion of his awards. In Chapel Hill, his portrait adorns Morehead Planetarium & Science Center, the UNC General Administration Building, and the university’s Frank Porter Graham Student Union.

Stories about his character and belief in equity pervade campus lore, such as when Graham had grappled with the dean of the UNC School of Medicine over admission of a Jewish student in 1933. During the dean’s tenure, he had instituted a cap for Jewish students, allowing in only four out of the incoming class’s 40 students. Despite the dean’s alarmist arguments about the imminent collapse of the medical school if the cap did not remain in place, Graham ordered him to admit a qualified student who would make the fifth Jewish student in the incoming class. The dean resigned but, of course, the medical school flourished.

Hal Robinson met Graham years later — and never forgot him.

“Hal was on a plane ride from somewhere when his seatmate was Frank Porter Graham, who at that time was a U.N. mediator,” Nancy explains. “Hal came home and said, ‘I have met the most wonderful man, the most wonderful humanitarian I ever hope to meet.’ And so … it became the Frank Porter Graham Center.”

Still making news five decades later

Newspaper reports said early plans for FPG included making temporary use of a local Presbyterian church’s facilities for the first group of children. Shortly afterward, three trailers on Cameron Avenue in Chapel Hill provided classroom space for 11 children and five staff, with the Robinsons’ own daughter, Beth, the first enrollee at FPG.

The center typically brought in children at a very early age, from the time their mothers had returned to work after giving birth, according to Nancy. FPG also offered nothing short of a radical child care setting for the South of the 1960s. “It involved black and white children together,” she says. “This was revolutionary in those days and times.”

Named, funded, and with key political support from UNC System president William Friday and other university heavyweights, the fledgling center began what would become a half-century of research, technical assistance, professional development, and other forms of public service. FPG’s influence would spread across many professional and disciplinary spheres, and by the time the original little center would celebrate its golden anniversary as a booming institute, people in 180 countries would use its resources — and children from its very first major project, the Abecedarian Project, would still be making news.

As difficult, exciting, and complicated as it would prove to be, FPG had embarked on its mission to fulfill the promise of the premise that it was possible to affect the trajectories of lives by steering them onto better courses early — and that doing so, in turn, could begin to alleviate broader social and economic challenges.

Hal and Nancy Robinson were both UNC psychologists who cofounded the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. Hal came to UNC in 1959, and became founding director of the institute in 1966. In the mid-’70s, the couple both assumed faculty positions at the University of Washington. While there, Hal created and became director of the Early Entrance Program, of which Nancy took over after Hal’s death in 1981. After Nancy retired in 2001, the center was renamed the Robinson Center for Young Scholars.

Joseph Sparling is senior scientist emeritus at the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. His 50-year career has focused on bringing educational opportunities to needy families with children from birth though age 5, and he currently is offering training through FPG’s professional development center on the Abecedarian Approach.

Frank Porter Graham served as UNC system president from 1930 to 1949. He was also an alumnus (class of 1916) and professor of history. After holding a year-long seat as a North Carolina senator, he was eventually appointed assistant secretary general of the United Nations.