The Legacy of The W.G. Pearson Center

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. 

The W.G. Pearson Center History

William Gaston Pearson

W.G. Pearson was a Hayti businessman and educator, at one time principal of Hillside High School. He made a practice of recruiting college graduates to teach in Durham’s African American schools at a time when teachers in the segregated schools were only required to have completed the ninth grade. Pearson was president of the Fraternal Bank and Trust Co. and organizer of the Royal Knights of King David fraternal lodge.

W.G. Pearson Elementary School

Designed by George Watts Carr, Sr. the W.G. Pearson Elementary School was built in 1928. It is one of the most impressive of the 1920s-1930s era school buildings, both in terms of the building architecture and the relation of the building to the site and the surrounding neighborhood, as seen from these blueprints.

School Building Design

The 1982 Durham Architectural and Historic Inventory describes Pearson as having “one of the most sophisticated exterior designs for a school building in Durham,” with a carved stone surround at its entrance and a copper cornice along the roofline.

Heather Witherspoon

1986 School of Excellence

The W.G. Pearson Elementary School was named a national School of Excellence in 1986 by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett. The principal responsible for Pearson’s success was John Howard. When interviewed by the Durham Morning Herald, Howard said the secret to their success was weekly collaboration “to agree on what they 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.”

W.G. Pearson Magnet Middle School

The W.G. Pearson school building was extensively renovated in 2007 after the W.G. Pearson Elementary School relocated to a new campus farther south. The school was then opened as the W. G. Pearson Magnet Middle School and was touted for drawing gifted students interested in the arts.

The W.G. Pearson Center

After the W.G. Pearson Magnet Middle School closed, Durham Public School opened the W.G. Pearson Center which was used for DPS offices. It also housed Student U programing and offices on the 2nd and 3rd floors.

The W.G. Pearson Center 2017 Renovation

In 2017, with the support of Self-Help, Durham County Government, and other project partners, Student U began the renovation process of its permanent home at The W.G. Pearson Center. By becoming a permanent resident of The W.G. Pearson Center Student U will enhance and expand current programming and continue to improve educational outcomes for Durham students.

The W.G. Pearson Center Re-Opening

In the fall of 2018, The W.G. Pearson Center re-opened. The W.G. Pearson Center will be a youth-centered space that will house activities and programs that enrich the lives and outcomes of young people in Durham. The Center will be accessible to the surrounding community of neighbors and organizations.

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