The sun streamed through the giant, clear windows and reflected off of the polished hardwood floor of The Whitted School’s restored gymnasium. Community leaders sat in the middle of history – under the original scoreboard – but also in the presence of Durham’s literal future. It was the ceremonial ribbon cutting on Sept. 8 that reopened The Whitted School as a down payment on Durham’s vision for a quality pre-kindergarten education for every child.
The Whitted School first opened in 1921 as the first African-American high school in Durham, later becoming an elementary and middle school. School board members Mike Lee and Minnie Forte-Brown and county commissioner Wendy Jacobs were among the speakers.
Mike Lee, chair, Durham Public Schools Board of Education: Take a moment to think about the change this building has seen, from its early days seeing smiling children flowing through its hallways, almost all residing in the Hayti area, to the controversial Durham Freeway being built, to the new downtown growing up in front of it. Now this building has a new life. Some of its children have come back to live in the senior residences. Some of its grand and great-grandchildren are here in pre-school. Let’s appreciate what this building has meant to Durham, and enjoy what it will mean to Durham moving forward.
Wendy Jacobs, chair, Durham County Board of Commissioners: The Whitted School, in combination with the Verandas at Whitted, the adjacent 79 affordable housing apartments for seniors, represents what we value in Durham. The nearly $23 million restoration project is a result of our community’s commitment to invest in our history, neighborhoods, seniors, and most importantly our children. What more fitting fate for this historic school than to come back to life as a stunning, revitalized pre-kindergarten school with eight state-of-the-art classrooms serving 144 children.
Durham County and Durham Public Schools made substantial investments in the Whitted project along with contributions from the City of Durham, the Durham Housing Authority, multiple state and federal funding sources, and developer partners Integral and 40 AM. To quote Carl Webb, it is a public-private partnership “on steroids.”
With The Whitted School, Durham County is truly launching its commitment to universal access to high-quality pre-K education for all Durham children by 2019, in response to the recent State of the Child Report and the results and recommendations of the Durham Community Early Education/ Preschool Task Force. Research proves that critical brain development and foundations for life-long learning takes place during the ages of birth to 8. Ensuring all children have equal access to high quality pre-K schools like the Whitted School will be one of most effective tools in our struggle to break the cycle of poverty in Durham and our nation.
Minnie Forte-Brown, member, DPS Board of Education: In its heyday, the Southside/Hayti community provided on Fayetteville and Pettigrew streets an example of excellence for everything a Black child dreamed of becoming. In the spirit of Sankofa, a Ghanaian word which means, “Go back and get it,” we look back to the time before urban renewal and the construction of Highway 147 decimated the community – and then move forward.
There was only one goal for those magnificent teachers and principal leaders at Whitted: to prepare Black children for the future. Students came from C.C. Spaulding Elementary, W.G. Pearson Elementary, Burton Elementary, Holloway Street, East End, Crest Street, Walltown and Lyon Park.
They tackled eighth-grade algebra, honors English, home economics, and drafting. There was a 100-piece uniformed marching band, and a symphonic band that competed state-wide. The Whitted School birthed engineers, architects, social workers, physicians, nurses, teachers, lawyers, dentists, entrepreneurs, and elected officials. It will again.
The first keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, William Murtagh, said, “Historic preservation clearly does much more than preserve bricks and mortar. It recognizes that our built history connects us in tangible ways with our past. At best, it engages the past in a conversation with the present over a mutual concern for the future.” That is what The Whitted School represents. We are breaking ground in another tangible step in the revitalization of a thriving Southside community, while securing a bright future for Durham’s children.
In the spirit of Sankofa: looking forward, go back. Look back – and get it!