Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021
On this final day of Black History Month, it felt relevant to send a missive that I first composed in December about the Parents Council Election of 1976–1977. Like the currents that are so powerful now — race, power and fear of displacement — these dynamics played at our school that year when a Black father, Dr. Tyrone Baines, was elected as the first Black parent to become president of the venerable Durham Academy Parents Council.
I was in eighth grade that year, my best year in Middle School. Durham Academy had settled into itself as a multicultural institution carefully navigating the fault lines of race in an effort to be truly inclusive and modern. It was the Bicentennial, and there was an electricity in the air throughout the country — America was 200 years old, and we were here to celebrate it!
The ’70s was a decidedly modern era in terms of music and clothes, language and sensibility. We were, along with our parents, reimagining America and what it could be. The Constitution had held us together through the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the women’s liberation movement and the fight for the doomed Equal Rights Amendment bill. We had come so far.
Yet, the past remained prologue. We were still the South. The country club was still exclusive based on color, and gender roles were still pronounced.
Our fathers were dads — they volunteered as coaches, drove us on field trips, gave interesting extracurricular talks that supplemented our world-class education. Dr. Danforth taught us chess, Mr. Ledbetter taught us about astronomy, my dad gave a talk about conflict resolution and so forth and so on.
But the power center outside of the Board of Trustees was the Parents Council. That was where our mothers reigned supreme.
If elected as grade mothers, our moms served refreshments at games and school events, made sure that there were refreshments for Parents Night, served us cupcakes on special occasions, served as chaperones on school trips and dried tears or soothed anxiety when your own mom wasn’t around. My mother was a trailblazer as a trustee and a grade mother. I was slightly more proud of her being a terrific grade mother. That’s the way it was.
Our grade mothers were prim, well-appointed, coiffed, with warm smiles. They helped to create and crystallize the culture of our school and our connection.
Mrs. Nancy Anderson, the mother of Mark Anderson, stands out in particular as a cultural ambassador. She was the hostess with the mostest — her kitchen was as familiar to us as our own kitchens. Mrs. Anderson seemed to effortlessly host everything after school hours — post-athletics games, a Student Council meeting, a Board of Trustees meeting, post-school plays, etc. She had a double oven, which was a wonder. Our DA moms represented perfection, precision, wisdom. That time was a charmed time.
We were the new America, the democratic promise made whole. And yet the old America still managed to rear its head, much like now.
When North Carolina Central University professor Tyrone Baines, whose son was in either fourth or fifth grade, decided to run for president of the Parents Council — it was the ultimate test of how new America we were. We didn’t pass the test. The partisan lines were hard and fast.
Old Durham and its allies vs. Chapel Hill, Black Durham and Northeast transplant Durham — mainly folks from Duke and RTP. Lawyers were retained. Parliamentary procedure was king. Parents on both sides huddled furtively at school and called each other late into the night on strategy. Smiles were tighter. The air was not as light. I knew too much, and it hurt.
There were three recounts before Dr. Baines was finally declared the winner. There were hard feelings. Friendships among parents ended. Bob Johnston, our fearless headmaster who had fought to have Black trustees on the board and who supported this new Black president, left for Milwaukee at the end of the year to take the reins of University School.
In the midst of the drama, right before the third recount, Mr. Johnston called me into his office. When I entered apprehensively, he smiled and said, “Oh, please sit down, you’re not in trouble or anything. I just wanted to have a short talk with you. I know you’re aware of everything going on with the Parents Council. So, I have a book for you. Are you familiar with the book Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy?”
I was. I replied that my father had a hardcover version, but that I had never read it. After all, I was into teen novels and biographies about women trailblazers.
Mr. Johnston pulled out a paperback version with a picture of President John F. Kennedy on the cover. He looked
at me intently as he handed the book over to me and then said brightly, “You should read this book. In particular, there’s a story about U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton who opposed his colleagues by fighting against the expansion of slavery into the new territories like Missouri. By standing up, Benton helped prevent the spread of slavery, but it cost him his political career.” Mr. J then went on to summarize the stories of other great leaders profiled in the book.
I loved politics, so I was intrigued by the stories, but also uncertain as to what they had to do with me. Mr. J took
out his pipe, then laid it down on his desk.
“Valerie, it’s courage that determines the course of one’s personal history and in a larger sense, the history of the world around us. Courage may cost you. But in the end, who we are and how we are remembered is based on how much we are willing to stand up for the right thing, no matter what.”
I nodded my head, took the book and smiled. Mr. Johnston rose from his chair, as did I. He smiled warmly at me. “Enjoy the book,” he said. “Let me know what you think.”
Decades later, I think of that moment and that election. We persevered at DA, but things were lost. Then, in time, things were gained. The next year, I was elected ninth-grade class president. Dr. Baines had a fine tenure as Parents Council president. Things smoothed over. DA and its community survived.
Now, no one thinks twice about a Black parent on the DA board or as a president of the Parents Council. But it was courage and allyship that made this possible. Black and white parents like my parents and so many others, stood together at a difficult moment to make a difference. Their courage paved the way. It still does. Courage matters. It always will.
Happy Black History Month, DA.
— Valerie Kennedy ’81