It would be hard to find a woman who embodies motherhood quite like the late Katherine Hickman.
The educator and community activist, who died April 27 at the age of 92, raised 14 children in Flagstaff. By the end of her life, she had 32 grandchildren, 50 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.
But it was her decades of caring for the city’s most vulnerable children that won her a place on the Murdoch Center mural in Southside and truly earned her the nickname “Mother Hickman.”
“When people saw her, they would see her as a mother type,” said Flagstaff Head Start Director Jesse Rodriguez, who knew Hickman for 40 years. “It was that love that she had. She just had a way to make you feel like she could be your mother.”
A PASSION FOR EDUCATION
Hickman was born in Forest Hill, La., in 1923. She grew up in a racially divided South where the Ku Klux Klan was everywhere and racially motivated violence was the norm. She managed to graduate from high school — an unusual feat for an African American girl at the time — but the color of her skin kept her from going to college.
“She came from an era where, in the South, you didn’t have a choice,” said her daughter Sissie Hickman. “You worked and you were a domestic and you couldn’t go to school. But she just always had a good mind. She knew there was more than just washing clothes and cooking.”
It was in those dark times that Hickman’s passion for education was born.
In 1940, she married Sanders Hickman, a logger. They moved around the South until, in 1946, the couple decided to move with their two oldest children to Flagstaff, where the logging industry was booming and they believed they could find a better life.
TURNED SEGREGATION INTO CONGREGATION
In those days, Flagstaff was strictly segregated. African-American, Latino and Native American families were sequestered in their own neighborhoods, like the Southside or Plaza Vieja, along with low-income whites. Black children went to the Dunbar School, now the Murdoch Center that bears Hickman’s image.
“She was one of those people who turned segregation into congregation, not just from her church but in everything that she did and touched,” said Northern Arizona University ethnic studies professor Ricardo Guthrie, who painted the Murdoch Center mural.
While her husband worked at the sawmill on what is now South Lone Tree Road, Hickman stayed home taking care of the children in Brannen Homes low-income housing.
“It really was a community and it took a village to raise all the kids,” Sissie said. “If Mrs. Hickman didn’t have beans and cornbread and a little piece of meat that day, then you’d go over to the Taylor house and eat over there. If there was nothing there, you’d go over to the Doherty house. Everybody took care of everybody in those days.”
But Hickman’s children remember their house as a community hub. There were always other neighborhood children coming over for dinner and loading into the Hickman family truck on Sunday mornings to go to church, where Hickman taught Sunday school, sang in the choir and remained extremely active until the day she died.
Many of the neighborhood children Hickman cared for came from all over the country May 2 to pay their respects at her funeral at Trinity United Methodist Church.
GLOWING FROM WITHIN
James Dugan came all the way from New York. He remembered her as a firm but loving mother figure.
“Not only did she do all this in the community, she found time for everybody,” he said. “She had the kind of beauty that glows from the inside.”
The driving passions of her life were educating children and serving God, which she saw as one and the same. She would often say parents are the primary educators of their children. That started an idea that would grow into the beginning of Flagstaff’s Head Start early childhood education program for low-income children.
“She had all these children and there were other women in the neighborhoods working, so she would just take their kids and tell stories and sing with them,” said her daughter, Carol Ola. “She’d be hanging up clothes (on the clothesline) and she’d start singing a song, then she’d start rhyming and the kids would start rhyming. She did a lot of things through song and play."
FLAGSTAFF HEAD START IS BORN
One day in the mid-1960s, she told the staff at the Cogdill Recreation Center she wanted to hold a regular story hour for Southside children there. It caught the eye of the federal government and, in 1966, Hickman became one of the founding teachers of the Flagstaff Head Start program.
In the course of a year, Flagstaff Head Start went from being a daycare-style summer lunch program to a formal nine-month program. Hickman helped facilitate the difficult transition. She went on to be the director of Head Start at Murdoch, Cogdill, Federated and Siler. Along the way, she made sure her own children went to college before earning her associate’s degree in the late 1970s.
Rodriguez met Hickman his first day on the job 40 years ago. He recalled how, in the early days, supplies were in short supply, so Hickman used nature walks, singing and dance as educational tools. He described her as a “natural teacher.”
“She was the type of teacher that I would want my children to sit in her lap,” he said.
Rodriguez interviewed Hickman for a newsletter approximately three weeks before she died. During the interview, he asked her what makes a good teacher.
“It’s easy, Jesse,” she said. “You’ve got to have love.”
Hickman was also an activist committed to ending discriminatory practices in Flagstaff. She fought for fair housing practices as a member of the Flagstaff Housing Authority and was known to call City Hall whenever a community member brought their concerns to her.
“Mom fought for everything,” said her daughter Sandra McCoy.
Hickman retired in the 1980s to care for her sick husband, who later died. Rodriguez estimates she touched the lives of at least 1,500 Flagstaff children in her time at Head Start, which has grown from serving around 300 children a year when it began to 1,800 now.
Her legacy lives on in her children. Three of them became teachers, including McCoy, who works for Flagstaff Head Start. And Sissie became a social worker.
Hickman’s health began to fail after she had a stroke in 2001, but her mind stayed sharp. On her 90th birthday, she recited the old story about thousands of starfish that washed up on a beach. In the story, a young girl flings the starfish back into the ocean one by one. When asked how she thinks she can possibly make a difference, the girl says, “It made a difference to this one.”
“Her thing was, every child is important and you don’t know which child that you throw back in is going to have the answer for everybody,” Ola said. “She believed that every child mattered.”