A message from Headmaster Dennis Manning, sent June 4, 2020.
Dear Norfolk Academy Family,
I closed our end of year faculty meetings this week by surveying a challenging national backdrop — a pandemic and self-isolation for 2 1/2 months, an economic contraction of historic severity, and 40 million souls relegated to the ranks of the unemployed. I have been thinking for some time how long our daunting challenges will persist.
Suddenly those concerns, I told the faculty, have retreated. A white police officer kneeling on the neck of a black man, George Floyd, and pressing the life out of him, has leapt into our national consciousness. This reprehensible act has also loosed a torrent of emotion, anger, and pain borne of generational racism, injustice, and deprivation. We have seen images of peaceful protest that are a stirring demonstration of our First Amendment right of peaceable assembly, and, harrowingly, images of violence, destruction, and looting that unite all of us in revulsion. George Floyd’s killing is the most recent example of inhumanity against black people in a nation still haunted by slavery and its consequences.
Norfolk Academy, like most American institutions of such longevity, has a complex history. An 1863 lithograph on display in the Massey Center shows our school building in downtown Norfolk having been seized and occupied by Union troops, re-purposed as a hospital. We do not have much in the way of 18th or even 19th century archival material. In a better-documented 20th century chapter, Norfolk Academy did not integrate until several years after Massive Resistance and the desegregation of the Norfolk public school system. There is no revising this history. We need to continue to summon a determination to do better by and for all, but particularly for our black students, alumni, and community members.
In the past few days I have heard from several of our students and alumni. While realizing that I am an imperfect messenger, I want you to know we are united with you. While we acknowledge that not all of us can really share your pain, we do share your resolve to help lead our community, our region, our state, and our nation to a better place. One of our graduates reminded me: our school’s mission calls us “to prepare students to become ultimately useful and responsible citizens of a democracy... [and that we must] strive to make them aware of their role in creating a just society.”
Our mandate could not be clearer. We must help our students understand the history that underpins these events, the ways they can make a difference as citizens, and their powerful ability to create a just society. These aspirations stem directly from our school’s mission – it has ever been our purpose to prepare children with an active social consciousness and conscience, and a deep, abiding love of their fellow man. But there is more in front of us, more to accomplish. Our school’s mission has never seemed more important or critical.
As adults we will not wait for the next generation to address these challenges. We are listening, we are learning, and we are acting with renewed conviction. We will intensify and sharpen one of the central focuses of our recently launched Strategic Plan that calls on us to advance an appreciation of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the life, programs, and curriculum of our school. In the days and weeks ahead, we will turn to our student diversity groups, our student and faculty leaders, and our school counselors and librarians to secure their help and input — ways we might serve our students and faculty during this challenging time, advance their understanding, provide them support. We will work with our long-standing partner, Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, and we will reach out to other community groups to continue to educate ourselves. These actions, and others to come, reflect our determination to stand with and support every person of color in our community.
I invoke the same words I used to close our final faculty meeting, words we might think of as a benediction Martin Luther King Jr. left us: “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
You have our pledge that we will never accept a “starless midnight of racism.” We will hold fast to “unarmed truth” and to “unconditional love” — let those be our final words and exemplars for every child, every student in our care.
With love, respect, and reverence,
Dennis G. Manning