Valerie Kennedy ’81 Shares Perspective on Race in 1970s Durham and DA with Students
Story by Melody Guyton Butts
Valerie Kennedy ’81 came of age in Durham at a critical time in the city’s history. Public schools and recreation areas were slowly being racially integrated, yet resistance to such progress kept many private spaces segregated. With that backdrop of uncertainty and upheaval, Kennedy enrolled in Durham Academy’s kindergarten in 1969 as one of the first Black students to attend the school.
Speaking from her home in New York City via a virtual meeting of DA Upper School’s History of Durham class in October 2020, Kennedy held students in rapt attention as she recalled the challenges and opportunities presented by growing up in Durham and attending DA in a time of such change.
“We as children were responsible for crafting this new world order,” she said. “Because our parents didn’t know anything about integration, because they’d all come out of segregated worlds, it was really incumbent upon us to figure out what this new world would look like.”
In the wake of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education — which decided that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional — many private schools were established in the South with the purpose of exclusively enrolling white students. To the contrary, Durham Academy — which was established in 1933 as Calvert Method School — distinguished itself by being welcoming to Black families in the post-Brown era.
Kennedy described DA co-founder George Watts Hill, who was white, as being “well-connected in the Black community. He knew the leaders and saw himself as a bridge in many respects, which is why he wanted DA to be integrated.” The first Black student enrolled at DA in 1964.
The reception to Black students became ever-clearer in April 1969, when newly minted DA Headmaster Bob Johnston received a letter from Kennedy’s parents, Ruth and Preston Kennedy, along with several other Black families, inquiring about how welcome their children might be at the school.
“Your interest in Negro students has been most encouraging, and as concerned Negro parents, we are deeply interested in joining your efforts and working with you to implement the kind of program at Durham Academy that will serve the needs and aspirations of all the students,” read the letter, from which Kennedy quoted in her talk with students.
Johnston assured the parents that their children would be most welcome at the school, and that fall, Kennedy was one of several Black students to enroll at DA, where she says they were made to feel welcome by teachers and fellow students.
“This is a man I consider to be my hero and inspiration when I was at DA,” she said of the headmaster, who served from 1969–1977. “Bob Johnston means many things to me. … He set the pace for DA on the issue of race. He was deeply committed.”
In her presentation, Kennedy displayed a photo of a group of men, including Johnston, several other DA faculty members, local religious leaders, businessmen and civil rights leaders — both white and Black. She explained that they coined themselves “The Do Nothing Club” and met regularly — but unofficially — to talk about race relations in Durham and to advance their goal of school integration.
“Durham has always operated like that, in terms of how powerful Blacks and whites have gotten together and done things off the books,” Kennedy said, “so that no one suffered any kind of social consequences of that.”
In the History of Durham elective course, Upper Schoolers hear and read about varying facets of the Bull City’s past, often through first-hand accounts, and undertake research studies on Durham-related topics of their own choosing.
Cecilia Moore ’22 was so inspired by Kennedy’s talk that she elected to create an oral history project featuring the perspectives and stories of Kennedy and four other alumni who were among DA’s first Black students: Sally Anita Burnette ’79, Vincent Quiett ’81, Claire Sanders ’79 and Mark Sanders ’81.
A major focus of the course is examining how the city’s reinvention over the years has created opportunities and led to consequences for different groups.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, an “urban renewal” project led to the razing of hundreds of businesses and the displacement of thousands of families from Hayti, a majority-Black community just south of downtown.
“This is where they ripped out our hearts in many respects,” Kennedy said, recalling how devastating it was when White Rock Baptist Church — her family’s church and “the seat of activism in Durham” — was destroyed in 1967.
In her talk, she painted a vivid picture of life in Durham and at DA in the 1970s, explaining the impact of everything from neighborhoods to newspapers on daily life. She recalled a school field trip to witness a tobacco auction — “it’s theatre,” she said, describing the rhythm of the auctioneer’s chant and “the drama that starts to percolate among the farmers.”
Another annual field trip took DA students to Bennett Place, the site of the largest surrender of Confederate soldiers, ending the Civil War. In the 1970s, the Civil War was much more in the present than it is today. Most of Kennedy’s DA teachers had grown up in segregation, and some of the older teachers’ grandfathers had fought in the Civil War.
She remembers sometimes singing songs associated with the Civil War in class, and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” — “a very serious song for Black people, it’s a liberation song,” she said — was sung in a Middle School music class in a sing-songy fashion that belied the gravity of its lyrics. Around that time, Kennedy recalled hearing a woman perform “Swing Low” in a rural Black church.
“In her voice, I really heard my history, my voice. ... When I heard that song sung the way it should be sung, as a dirge, and as an expression of anguish and pain and longing for freedom … I knew at that time that I can't just be a student at this school, I need to be a cultural steward. I need to make sure that this experience is not watered down and it is not dismissed into something it is not. I remember having a talk with our music teacher … and I was just like, we can’t sing this song anymore, not like the way we’ve been singing it. Unless we can sing it the way it needs to be sung, then we shouldn’t sing it. And we didn’t.”
Valerie Kennedy ’81
Through such challenges, Kennedy was grateful for Johnston’s commitment to Black students.
“If you think about what this meant symbolically, then it was so smart of Mr. Johnston to embed this into our consciousness,” she said of the Bennett Place field trips. “Here’s this awful battle that ends here in North Carolina in your county, and this is where the country takes the first steps to come together as a nation.”