History of William Gaston Pearson and The W.G. Pearson Center
William Gaston Pearson was born on April 11th, 1858, as a slave on a Durham County Plantation. At the age of 21, after being self-taught throughout childhood, the owner of a factory where he was employed decided to sponsor his continued education at Shaw University. With this privilege of education and a passionate belief that it belonged to all, Pearson dedicated his life to serving others from this point forward. In 1886, he created The Royal Knights, a progressive reform group that focused on helping southern African-Americans advance socially and economically. That same year, Pearson became a teacher at the Whitted School and went on to spend years educating black boys and girls under its roof while advocating for improved schools in Durham. When Hillside Park High School, Durham’s first black high school, was built, the choice for the principal was obvious: William Gaston Pearson. Pearson went on to lead the school for 18 years, presiding over the first high school graduation of Black students in Durham. As a result of his leadership, William Gaston Pearson became known as “Durham’s Black Superintendent.” Pearson continued empowering young people of color with the enriching education they deserved until the end of his career. Pearson passed away in 1947 after a lifetime of working to increase opportunities for those around him.
In 1928, a new elementary school for black children was built and named after William Gaston Pearson. For almost a century, The W.G. Pearson Center on East Umstead Street has served as a home for Durham students. The building has housed children of a variety of ages – from elementary to high school – and has consistently been a place for Durham youth to learn and thrive. The W.G. Pearson Center has been a pillar of the Hayti community and an important partner in the Fayetteville corridor. Its grand entrance, with trees lining its path inside, reminds us of the children of the past who came to school each day ready to learn, not allowing the Jim Crow era of segregation and racism to get in their way of obtaining an excellent education. The front arch with the original “W.G. Pearson Elementary School” still etched in stone, pays tribute to the man for it is named after. Walking into W.G. Pearson, almost 100 years after first being built, still feels sacred, as one feels the power of students of the past and the potential of students of the future.
Pearson also made outstanding contributions as a member of the Durham community. He was one of the original organizers of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, the Fraternal Bank and Trust Company, Southern Fidelity and Surety Company as well as Banker’s Fire Insurance Company. He was a trustee of Kittrell College, St. Joseph’s A.M.E. Church, the National Religious Training School, NCCU and Wilberforce University. He helped found the Mechanics and Farmers Bank in Durham’s “Black Wall Street”. In 1927, he received the Harmon Award for Achievement in Business.
The W. G. Pearson Gifted and Talented Elementary School, W. G. Pearson Magnet Middle School, and the cafeteria at N.C. Central University were named after him.
Andrews, R. McCants. William Gaston Pearson (Incorporator), University Archives-James E. Shepard Memorial Library, https://hbcudigitallibrary.auctr.edu/digital/collection/nccu/id/67/.
Pearson, William Gaston. John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture. 1913. https://find.library.duke.edu/catalog/DUKE001767379.
“William Gaston Pearson,” The Journal of Negro History 33, no. 1 (January 1948): 117-118. https://doi.org/10.1086/JNHv33n1p117.