Faculty & Staff Profiles
Wanda Moore is a trailblazer. It’s a role the African-American teacher is familiar with, a role she’s comfortable with and a responsibility she feels she was born with.
“I always feel like I am a trailblazer because it has been left up to me to set a positive example so that people of color who come after me, they’ll get a chance to prove themselves.
“It was something I knew I could do and wanted to do. A lot of people can be confrontational about race, but that’s not how I am. I want to explain in a non- confrontational way what it’s like to be black in America. I tell my kids and tell the faculty, if there’s something you want to know, just ask me. You don’t have to be afraid, you can be blunt and say this, this or that, and I will calmly answer your question because I think that’s how you teach people. But if you’re going to get angry and be jumping on the person who’s asking the question, then they’re going to shut down.”
When Moore accepted a job teaching French at Durham Academy Middle School in 1988, she was the school’s only African-American faculty member. DA had an African-American teacher in the 1970s, but Moore was the only black faculty member for her first five years here.
Things went much more smoothly for Moore at DA than they had in Tennessee in the early 1970s. Moore taught for two years at an inner city high school in Nashville when the superintendent asked if she would be willing to transfer to an all-white school in an area known for segregationist views.
“Because I was 25 and didn’t know any better, I said sure. The day before I was supposed to report I got phone calls from people telling me they would kill me if I showed up and this sort of thing, but my husband just ignored it. He drove me to work probably the first week, and then after that it was okay. When I got there, the teachers were not very friendly. They didn’t talk to me at all and the principal would only speak if he had to. … When I would go in the cafeteria, the teachers wouldn’t invite me to come eat with them, but instead my students came and ate with me. It ended up being a very good experience for me, and I think a very good experience for some of my students.”
A Durham native, Moore knew what it was like to grow up as an African-American in the 1950s and ’60s. Her family lived on Dunbar Street near N.C. Central University (then known as North Carolina College at Durham), and their neighbors were “doctors, teachers, lawyers or business people. All of the children played together. Because we grew up during Jim Crow, our environment was very protected. We had our own Jack and Jill, which is like cotillion, and our parents would introduce us when we were teenagers to other males or females who were in the same plain, meaning that they grew up in basically a middle class background. … I lived a very comfortable lifestyle, but you were still living under Jim Crow.”
Her father, who was principal of East End Elementary, a school that was located across town in a rough area, decided his two youngest daughters should go to East End and attend school with children who came from a different background.
“He also wanted to supervise our education because he knew what he wanted us to experience and he knew the kind of teachers he wanted us to have. He was a very strict principal who believed in kids learning to read, write and have basic math skills. And because we had gone to nursery school at North Carolina Central — they had a nursery school for kids who grew up in that area — when we got to East End we could skip a grade because we already knew everything that they taught in first grade. And from there I went to Whitted Junior High — where my mother was the dean of girls — which was rough for a teenage girl, having your mother be the person you were sent to if you got in trouble.”
Moore took her first French class at Hillside High School. “I said, I love this class, I love this language!”
She continued her French studies at Spelman College in Atlanta. “My mother grew up with the president of Spelman’s wife. She always told my mother, I want one of your girls to go to Spelman. I was always the adventurer. … I said OK. I applied to Spelman and got in. I had a wonderful experience there and graduated with honors. And I loved French even more.”
Moore’s love of French is literally in her bones. “My sister had her DNA done, and I found out that the part of my African heritage is from French-speaking Africa. There is a gene somewhere in my DNA because I loved that language from the very first moment I studied it!”
Moore came back to Durham after Spelman and earned her master’s degree from N.C. Central. She was living at home, and a neighbor thought she would like meeting Gordon Moore, a family friend who was attending Central. They married in 1968 in a double wedding with Moore’s sister. The wedding reception was held at Blair House, a restaurant not far from the Middle School campus, and it was the first time a black family had been allowed to have a wedding reception there.
The Moores moved to Nashville for Gordon to attend medical school, and then to Akron, Ohio, for his residency in pediatrics. Moore was teaching at a junior high school when her husband suggested she interview to be Akron’s community ambassador to French-speaking Switzerland.
“I spent a semester in Constantine, Switzerland, and lived with a family. The only thing they ever wanted to ask me about was civil rights and the civil rights movement. As best as I could tell them in French, I explained to them what it was all about. … They were just amazed that people would be treated differently. It was a great experience, and I can’t believe that I actually did that on my own.”
The Moores’ next move took them to Arizona, where he worked with the Indian Health Service. They lived on a Native American reservation, and Moore taught English at a high school on the reservation. The area was remote and very rural. Moore would drive to the grocery store and buy a month’s worth of groceries. There were no streetlights or television, and many of Moore’s students did not have running water. Sons Marshall and Jeremy learned to understand and speak Navajo because their babysitters spoke little English to them.
“My family was very well accepted on the reservation. They felt like they had a connection with the African-American community. They felt that we understood them.”
When the family moved to Farmington, New Mexico, Moore taught high school French. “Most of my students were white, some were Hispanic and maybe a few Native American. They received the same kind of prejudice that African-Americans experienced elsewhere. I would stop — you know I wasn’t going to let that pass — and I would say things. I said you cannot treat people like that. I said you are treating them the same way I was treated when I grew up under Jim Crow. I said you know me. These are people who deserve your respect.”
The Moores moved back to Durham for Gordon to earn a master’s in public health at UNC, and Moore took a job at Durham High School. When Gordon visited Durham Academy in search of a better school environment for son Marshall, a sixth grader, he learned DA was looking for a French teacher and encouraged Moore to apply.
“At first I didn’t want to because I felt like the black kids I taught at Durham High needed me, needed a role model to let them know you can be black and you can also be well-educated. I felt very guilty about that, but Gordon said white kids need a role model as well. They need to know that not all African-Americans are the way they are portrayed on TV and etcetera. I think you would be a good influence. So I came for the interview, I got the job and I’ve been here ever since.”
Moore is known for her ready smile and her talkative personality.
“One thing my parents noticed about me early on was I talked a lot. I have a father who’s very quiet, very much an intellectual; a mother who’s quiet, very sweet; three sisters who are quiet; and the out comes Wanda Jean. My sister told me I could talk to a door. Yes I could! … When I get students who are talkative, I get it. People like me who talk a lot, we just love to interact with other people. We just have so much to say and do.”
Part of what Moore loves about teaching is interacting with students. “That’s my favorite part of the day. And I love watching them trying to grasp an understanding of French. When they get it, their eyes just light up. That makes my day.”
Moore still adores French, and she loves teaching French to fifth- and sixth-graders and serving as a sixth-grade advisor.
“I like a warm atmosphere, I’m very laid back as a teacher, and I try to make it fun because I teach the younger ones. If I don’t make them feel that they can learn a foreign language successfully, they will give up on that language forever. So I have probably one of the more important jobs because I have to sell the language to the students and make them feel as though they can be successful.”
But French is only part of what Moore is teaching.
She wants her students to develop “a sense of forgiveness toward each other and themselves, and a capacity to understand others, to reach out, to not be afraid to meet and get to know people who are not like them. That’s what I hope — that they can forgive themselves when they make mistakes and they can forgive others when they make mistakes. I teach kids to be kind, to be loving and to be accepting of other people. That’s the biggest lesson I want them to learn. Above and beyond French, I want them to learn that.”
Moore’s teaching style is not unlike her parenting style.
“I always wanted my boys to feel they could tell me anything. If you make a mistake, that’s fine, but you own up to it and you don’t lie about it. That was our philosophy of rearing and parenting our children and we’re still close.”
Marshall, 41, and Jeremy, 38, are graduates of Durham Academy, the U.S. Naval Academy and medical school (they are fourth generation medical doctors). Both are married, are commanders in the U.S. Navy and are stationed at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where Marshall is a spine surgeon and Jeremy is an anesthesiologist.
Moore may soon be teaching French to a new generation.
“I have my first grandson. Jeremy and his wife had a baby over the summer. He was a preemie and was in the NICU for about a month, but he’s doing better. He’s fussy, but I told Jeremy, welcome to parenthood. They are up all night.”