Jordan School plans reunion

Published 10:03 pm Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Though Donna Akiba Sullivan Harper was one of the first three black children to attend formerly all-white schools in Suffolk, you likely won’t find her name in any history books.

That’s because, Harper said, Suffolk integrated its schools relatively peacefully, compared to many other school districts in the state in 1964.

“Suffolk did not appreciate what they had accomplished,” Harper said during a phone interview recently. “When you read [about violence] in civil rights history books, Suffolk did not do that and I don’t think we give ourselves credit for that.”

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Harper still remembers a white girl named Catherine King who spoke kindly to her the first day of school at Thomas Jefferson Middle School. King went on to become an Antarctica researcher.

“She was one of the children who spoke to me,” Harper said. “No one did anything rude, and by the second semester of that first year, I was a class officer … Clearly Suffolk already understood that you can evaluate people on the basis of something other than race.”

Harper would go on to become the first black valedictorian at Suffolk High School, receive her master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Emory University, and become a prominent scholar of Langston Hughes.

Next month, however, she will visit Suffolk to speak about an educational experience further back than Emory, Suffolk High or even Jefferson Middle — her time at the Jordan Kindergarten.

The Jordan School, as it was called, was founded in 1894 by the Unitarian Universalist Church for black children who could not attend public school at the time because of segregation. Joseph Fletcher Jordan, a Unitarian Universalist minister, ran the school for about 20 years.

After he died in 1925, his daughter, Annie B. Willis, took over the day-to-day operations of the school. At its peak, it served about 300 students. Though enrollment dropped during the ‘40s and ‘50s, and schools were integrated in the ‘60s, the school continued in one form or another until 1984.

Some of Jordan’s descendants and alumni of the school are putting together a reunion to be held Labor Day weekend. On Sept. 4, the reunion will kick off with a reception at the Hilton Garden Inn. The following day, a cookout will be held at the former school site, at the corner of Tynes and Johnson streets in downtown. Saturday night, a banquet honoring the legacy of the school will be held at the Hilton, where Harper will speak of her experiences attending the Jordan Kindergarten.

“I remember they ran a tight ship, because we all lived in fear of … being paddled with a short stick,” Harper recalled last week. “When we did good work we got little stamps … maybe a little star or something.”

Harper said the plays and speeches the students put gave her early practice with public speaking, which she now does on a regular basis.

“It might be fair to say that Jordan Kindergarten gave me my start,” she said.

Harper said she is looking forward to learning more about the heritage of the school — something she didn’t pay much attention to at the age of 5.

Harper encouraged anybody who is free that weekend — even those who did not graduate from the Jordan School — to attend and learn more about Suffolk’s educational heritage.

“Maybe there’s something those contemporary parents and grandparents can do differently in the spirit of Jordan School so the current group of young children can grow up to be content and productive adults,” she said.

For more information about next month’s reunion, e-mail or visit