Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a special day of service. In Alexandria City Public Schools and the City of Alexandria, we take it very seriously and encourage our young people to think about how they can have a positive impact on others, not just on this day, but every day of the year. Superintendent Dr. Gregory C. Hutchings, Jr. was the keynote speaker for the City of Alexandria’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations on Thursday. This is the text of his speech to City and School employees.
First, I must say it’s an honor to be invited to keynote this wonderful event today. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most inspirational and influential leaders of our time and happens to be a member of my dear fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated, which is the world’s first African American green fraternity for collegiate men founded on December 4, 1906 at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.
Dr. King had a quote that resonates with me when I think about our celebration today. He said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” When I think of Dr. King, I cannot help but think of some of the most influential African American men in Alexandria such as the The Secret Seven including Col. Marion Johnson, Edward Patterson, Melvin Miller, Nelson Green Sr., Lawrence Day, Ferdinand T. Day and Fr. John Davis, who were pioneers throughout the civil rights movement in Alexandria and beyond. I would not be standing here today as the superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools without the sacrifices and relentless advocacy spearheaded by Dr. King and many others like The Secret Seven.
Today, our topic for discussion is “Equity as a Pillar in our Community.” We are so fortunate to live, work, and play in a city that brings such diversity as the city of Alexandria. We have people from all walks of life with diverse ethnic backgrounds, a wide range of socioeconomics, and a plethora of life experiences. If it is our goal to make equity a pillar in our community, then we must acknowledge our inequities and understand the history within our city that has contributed to the barriers that many of our young people are faced with today, especially students of color.
I grew up in Alexandria and attended ACPS from K-12, graduating from T.C. in 1995. I’ve lived on both the East and West side of the city. I’ve attended Patrick Henry, James K. Polk, Mount Vernon, William Ramsay, and Francis C. Hammond before attending our T.C. Williams. I can still recall when I literally had to have my fellow students sign a petition to support me getting into Honors classes at T.C. because I didn’t meet the guidelines for enrolling in honors but had the desire and potential. Remember, I graduated in 1995 so we are not talking about the 70s or 80s. And unfortunately some of our young people today are still being discouraged from enrolling in upper level courses and we continue to see a small percentage of students of color in upper level courses such as Advanced Placement or Dual Enrollment.
In order for equity to be the pillar of our community, we must know our history in Alexandria and be willing to acknowledge the good, the bad, and the ugly. We must remember that some of the first slaves to arrive in Virginia landed right here in Alexandria, and we had one of the largest slave trades right here on Duke Street. We had our own share of racism then and now. There was a time in Alexandria — not so long ago — that we believed African American children did not need an education past 8th grade and we forced some African American children to literally walk to DC to get a high school education — African Americans such as the great Ferdinand T. Day, who became the first African American school board chair in the commonwealth of Virginia.
We must remember that we had a superintendent named Thomas Chambliss (T.C.) Williams, who believed that our schools were better off segregated, and promised to never integrate our schools as long as he was the superintendent of schools, which he served as for over 30 years. He’s one of the biggest bigots and racists in the history of ACPS and we’ve named our only high school after him. It’s ironic that it became the name that everyone references when they talk about the high school that won the state championship in football and helped the city embrace integration. And it’s even more ironic and refreshing to know that now T.C. Williams High School has a breadth of diverse cultures and nationalities under one roof and are proud graduates of T.C. Williams. Now, even though we are integrated, many of our young people still experience segregated situations at our schools. Come and visit our upper level courses such as AP where you will find minimal to no students of color or visit our alternative program, Chance For Change Academy, and you will see the majority are students of color.
If we don’t know our history, then we are bound to repeat it! Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Equity as a pillar for our community matters. We must have the courage and be unapologetic about speaking on behalf of those who are different than we are. We must advocate for our young people and those who don’t have a voice in our communities. Even more important, we must stand together and work collaboratively to ensure that every child is engaged in a high quality education and their social, emotional and academic needs are being met regardless of their ZIP code, learning ability, family circumstances, race, and/or socioeconomic status.
The time is now! We must make sure that we continue focusing on our collaborative efforts to ensure equity is a pillar of our community through our unified planning work and collaboration with the city on educational transformation. It’s not about giving everyone the same thing. Our young people are the future, and we must invest in them to ensure all — yes, all — of them are engaged in a high quality education every single day they enter an ACPS building or classroom.
I remember the day when I was in 5th grade and my music teacher demanded that I speak in the Black History program. I told her that I was too afraid to speak in front of the school and she said that I didn’t have a problem talking in her class when I wasn’t supposed to. Mrs. Fields worked with me every day for about a month and helped me to memorize portions of the “I Have Dream” speech and had me work on my diction to sound like a Baptist minister when reciting the speech. I recall Dr. King ended his speech with a vision of enduring freedom: “When we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”
In order for us to make equity a pillar in our community, we must remember that we are made by history. The good times and the bad times have made us who we are. Let us embrace our history and make a vow to do better and ensure that we unapologetically tear down the barriers that prevent all of our young people from being the best they can possibly be. We must take a stand, collaborate and, most of all, uplift one another. Today, I end by simply saying thank you for allowing me to speak with you. I’m so honored to be able to serve our wonderful community — with our flaws and all — as your superintendent. Thank you!”