Editor’s note: The Urbana Black Heritage Festival will be held at Barbara Howell Park on June 18 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 213 E. Market St. This article is one in a series of Heritage stories leading up to the festival.
Urbana native Barbara Howell made a lifelong commitment to working with youth and aiding low-income families. Born in 1923, Barbara graduated from Urbana High School in 1942. She worked as a receptionist for 25 years at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Barbara would return to school for more education prior to her next career move.
Barbara Howell would be hired as the first Director of the Head Start program for the Tri-County Community Action Agency that oversaw the program for Champaign, Logan and Shelby counties that was launched in 1967. At the time, the Agency was under the leadership of another Urbana African American, Jean Gordon. The Tri-County Community Action Agency efforts with Head Start would become the focus of Barbara’s work going forward.
Head Start provides developmental support and learning activities for young children from low-income families from birth to age 5 in order to prepare them as they reach school age. Howell is also credited with founding the first African American Girl Scout troop in the city.
The Tri-County Head Start Program had its origins locally through efforts at the iconic St. Paul A.M.E. Church in Urbana beginning around 1966. The program was ground-breaking and a trend-setter with it being founded just one year after Head Start appeared on the national level. During that time, Wesley Matthews PhD, served as the Pastor for the St. Paul congregation. Pastor Matthews led St. Paul for a total of 12 years. He also served as the Pastor for the A.M.E. Churches in Yellow Springs, Springfield and Chillicothe. Dr. Matthews founded and served as the first Director of the Senior Center in Yellow Springs in 1960 for which that Center honored him posthumously in 2021 for his many achievements to the Yellow Springs community. Pastor Matthews was a graduate of Wilberforce University and Payne Theological Seminary. He believed the churches he served should play an important role in the development of the communities in which they were located, and he brought that view to Urbana and St. Paul’s. Matthews would return to Urbana to speak at the church just weeks before his death in 1979.
Barbara Howell would retire in 1995 and would pass away in 1998. That same year, a petition was authorized to rename Market Street Park in honor of Barbara Howell and her long service to supporting children in need through her work with Head Start for nearly 30 years.
The Urbana Black Heritage Festival is taking place at the Market Street Barbara Howell Park and the festival programming is being led by team captain, Kalen Howell Sr., a grandchild of Barbara Howell. We hope to see you there!