The Durham community and Student U gathered on October 20, 2018 to celebrate the Re-Opening of The W.G. Pearson Center, honor its history, and imagine a future where all students in Durham can succeed.
In 2017, in partnership with the Durham Public Schools, Durham County, and Self-Help Credit Union, Student U has built a home at The W.G. Pearson Center. By becoming a permanent resident of and thoroughly renovating The W.G. Pearson Center, the building that has housed our programming and staff for three years, Student U will enhance its current programming and continue to improve educational outcomes for Durham students.
In order to empower the leaders of tomorrow and effectively march forward towards a Durham in which all students can succeed, we must first look backwards to understand the values and vision of the individuals whose legacy we are inheriting by being the stewards of this beautiful building.
The W.G. Pearson Center is named after William Gaston Pearson who was born as a slave on a Durham County plantation. At the age of 21, after being self-taught throughout childhood, he continued his education at Shaw University. Upon graduating, Pearson dedicated his life to ensuring others could receive a quality education. In 1886, Pearson created The Royal Knights, a progressive reform group that focused on helping southern African-Americans advance socially and economically. As a result of his decades of teaching and leading schools, William Gaston Pearson became known as “Durham’s Black Superintendent.” Pearson empowered young black students with a thirst and demand for the rigorous and enriching education they deserved until the end of his career. Pearson spent his lifetime working to increase opportunities for those around him, and ever since, the building named for him has continued to house his value of education, fierce belief in all students, and hope of a better Durham.
John Howard was the principal of the Pearson School in 1986 when it was named a national School of Excellence by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett. When interviewed by the Durham Morning Herald, Howard said the secret to their success was weekly collaboration,“to agree on what [teachers] will teach, when and how.” He continued, “They decide what works and what doesn’t. Teachers are accountable to each other. Their classrooms are not islands.”This commitment to providing an excellent education for young people in a collaborative environment where best practices are shared and commitments are held is what we hope to build in our re-imagined version of The W.G. Pearson Center.
In 2009, Casey Barr-Rios was part of the first graduating class of the W.G Pearson Middle School and in 2017, she became one of the first Student U college graduates. Ms. Barr-Rios is now a full-time employee of Student U, committed to honoring the building’s past and crafting its future. As Ms. Barr-Rios shares, “William Gaston Pearson was a man that devoted his life to the empowerment of young people through education. As a student at W.G. Pearson and Student U, I was constantly reminded of how education was the way to changing my life. There was not a moment when I walked through these hallways that I was not reminded to chase my dreams without fear of failure. Not only was I taught to better myself through education, but I was also taught to lift those around me and transform my community. No matter how successful in life we may be, we must never forget where we came from and give back, change, and transform our communities. Student U and W.G. Pearson were two of the most influential parts of my life during my middle school years. Now, two spaces become one.”
These are just a few examples of the many legacies that The Center’s history holds when it comes to academic success and advocacy for a better Durham. As we continue this work in creating a better future for our community’s children, we hope that we will do these legacies justice, building on the strong foundation laid before us.
We understand that alone, Student U cannot adequately honor these legacies to fulfill their vision for Durham. Therefore, Student U has sought partners to join together at The Center to combat systemic racism and structural inequalities in service of a Durham where all children can succeed. Individually, tenants of The Center will continue their work to achieve their desired goals. Collectively, tenants will form a consortium of like-minded organizations, sharing best practices and advocating for policies and investments to enhance systems that enable all people to thrive.
When reflecting on the vision for The Center, Student U Executive Director Alexandra Zagbayou states, “I couldn’t be more humbled and energized by the vision our community is building for The W.G. Pearson Center and grateful for the partners who will be joining forces with us to make it come to fruition. My highest aspiration is that The Center becomes a model for working with students, families and communities intergenerationally to ensure children in our communities have pathways to long-term success.”
Over the past year, Student U has engaged with members of the Hayti community, Durham leaders, and long-time partners to dream fearlessly about what can happen at The Center. The results form the vision for the building’s future. The Center will remain a youth-centered space that houses activities and programs that enrich the lives and outcomes of young people while being accessible to the surrounding community of neighbors and organizations.
When considering what can be accomplished at The Center, Bishop Clarence Laney, Jr., pastor of the neighboring Monument of Faith Church since 1996, states, “when I heard that Student U purchased the building, I was excited because of the life that would come back to the building. Going forward, I think it has the capabilities to once again serve the community. There are many spaces needed for meetings, social events, dramatizations, and all of those can be possible in the community once again as a result of The W.G. Pearson Center being open.”
County Manager Wendell Davis agrees. He believes that this equity hub can be, “one more contributing factor to bringing the old Fayetteville corridor back to life because the truth of the matter is we have seen a lot of great growth and development occur within our downtown and throughout Durham, and it just seems like a natural progression for us to begin to think about how we move along that progression to Fayetteville Street, connecting North Carolina Central Campus and other things along that corridor with our great downtown.”
Ms. Barr-Rios knows what is possible: “At The Center, students will be empowered to own their education in order to pursue their dreams and become change makers in this community. We will become tomorrow’s heroes.”