Dr. Martin Luther King Jr with children

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with children at New York's World Fair in 1964

One of my mentors is an amazing woman at my church, Ruby Thompkins. She is a masterful organizer, quietly working hard behind the scenes to make things happen for her family, at our church, in our community, and over the past two years, at her grandson’s school Durham Nativity. This year for the King holiday, Ms. Ruby asked if I would write a piece for the school newsletter, imagining what advice Dr. King would have for the young men of the school.  As I worked to prepare the piece for the newsletter, I was impressed with the many ways that the school dovetailed with King’s legacy. So to celebrate the King holiday this year, I want highlight the push for education and a school that reminds us of the kind of work King’s activism demanded of all Americans.

Durham Nativity, a tuition-free, private school is a small school with a very big mission. Founded in 2002, their model of education, which they call a “holistic learning experience,” is designed to train young men from underserved communities in Durham, North Carolina and intensively focus on academic training, active parental involvement, community service, and character building. They see the middle school years as one of transformative possibility for these young men as they work to prepare to attend private boarding or day schools on the high school level. One of the truly powerful parts of the Durham Nativity model is that they consider the school an 11-year program, one where they provide resources and support as young men attend high school, and throughout the college years. Their principal, Dr. Daniel Vannelle, explained to me that one of their current goals is to extend beyond college, providing pathways for the first generation of Durham Nativity graduates to return to their community as productive leaders.

The school was founded by two long-time Durham residents, the late Dr. Joseph Moylan and his wife, Ann Carole Moylan. Dr. Moylan, a surgeon at Duke University Hospital who helped to develop their emergency trauma unit, had seen, through the experiences of his own sons and his work in the hospital, the ways that violence wrecked havoc on many young men within the community. Determined to do something to offer greater opportunity, the Moylans founded a school that recognizes the rich potential in boys of all races, particularly those whose families would not otherwise have the resources to back up their sons’ potential.

As an educator, I was impressed by the rich curriculum. The boys start early and stay late, working on the intensive classwork that prepares them to compete in some of the most elite private schools in the region. In recent years they have required Latin courses as the way to quickly grow the boys’ vocabulary skills. Every Wednesday they do community service often joined by their parents or grandparents, which teaches the boys to give back even as they receive. The school runs past the traditional school year calendar and even provides the opportunity for the boys to attend four weeks of an away summer camp. The boys become immersed in their work, guided by a diverse faculty and staff that recognize the boys’ rich potential and demand that they live up to their ability to reach it.

Durham Nativity is growing just as schools are becoming the civil rights battleground of our day. In many ways the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision has become tarnished as school have re-segregated along class divides that too often mirror racial divides. Some in the educational reform movement advocate charter schools as a cure all and insist that we have spent too much with too few results on traditional public schools. Others have blamed teachers and demonized teacher’s unions as the problem. Testing agendas and increased classroom sizes have left teachers with more to do and less resources with which to perform. And shrinking budgets have led to shuttered schools in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago where students need more options, not fewer schools. So in no way am I not holding up Durham Nativity as a cure all. But as a parent, I do laud this school as one of many that is blazing an important trail. They are recognizing the capabilities of Black boys in a time when the achievement gap for all Black males seems to grow every year. By providing the space, and insisting on excellence, they work from the assumption that all boys of all backgrounds can achieve.

So as I walked the halls of Durham Nativity, housed simply and plainly in a space rented from a church, I saw a school that was already aspiring to King’s vision of a just society. I would not assume that I might know what King would say, but I would like to draw on King’s own words to a group of young people at the height of the movement:

Whatever career you may choose for yourself—doctor, lawyer, teacher—let me propose an avocation to be pursued along with it. Become a dedicated fighter for civil rights. Make it a central part of your life. It will make you a better doctor, a better lawyer, a better teacher. It will enrich your spirit as nothing else possibly can. It will give you that rare sense of nobility that can only spring from love and selflessly helping your fellow man. Make a career of humanity.  Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater Nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.