Although I was born and raised in New Jersey and have been an Atlanta resident for only about eight months, my arrival at Atlanta Public Schools to help tackle the challenges of equity in education stands as a personal homecoming more than a century in the making.
You see, my paternal origins are rooted in Georgia not too far from Atlanta. Washington County, Georgia, is the birthplace of my oldest known relatives, who were born slaves: Charles Sheppard, born 1817; his daughter, Saddie Sheppard-Harris, born 1855; and her husband, Charles Harris born 1849. Further along the branches of the family tree: Charles and Saddie Harris were parents of Hill Harris, the father of my great-great grandfather, Lodrick Harris, Sr.
Lodrick Harris, Sr., married Pearl-Dixon Harris, the niece of Henry Samuel Dixon, a professor at Fort Valley State College and former president of the General Missionary Baptist Laymen’s Convention of Georgia, a position he held for 34 years. He was also a 53-year veteran teacher, retiring in 1960, of math, Latin and Greek at various public high schools throughout the state.
My great-great grandparents left Washington County in 1919 and eventually landed in West Virginia. Our family understands that the couple contemplated moving their family to the Atlanta metro area, where other family members now resided.
But this was the time of the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 and restrictive Jim Crow legislation in the city, including the creation in 1913 of official boundaries for white and black residential areas and restrictions upon black-owned businesses. Instead, they migrated to West Virginia because they felt they could provide a better educational future for their children there.
My great-great grandfather opened a small shop in Marion, West Virginia, and became an outspoken advocate about the rights of African Americans. So much so, that on March 10, 1935, the Ku Klux Klan set fire to their house.
Lodrick, Sr., however, was not home. But my great-great grandmother, Pearl; my great grandfather Lodrick, Jr (16 at the time); his younger brother Ulysses (4 years old), and his younger sister Marguerite (7 years old) were. In an effort to save her children, Pearl told Lodrick. Jr., to climb out of the back window. She handed his younger siblings to him and told him to flee to their older sister, Lucille’s, house (20 years old and married).
Pearl was killed in the fire.
When Lodrick, Sr. returned home, he found his wife dead. In his grief, he escaped in the middle of the night with his youngest children to Ohio where much of my paternal family still live today. They left everything – including Pearl, my great-great grandmother – behind. The only remembrance of her is this photo, which Lucille gave my great-great grandfather the night they fled West Virginia.
Events such as these are what made wealth accumulation in the African-American community so difficult. When they did accomplish success or accumulate wealth, someone or something often set them back.
So, my family’s history is intimately intertwined with the history of Atlanta. Seeing local events unfold before them, Lodrick and Pearl left Georgia to protect their family from the emergent realities of their time and to provide them with greater opportunities, only to find that the same bigotry and race-based violence was prevalent everywhere.
To me, this fact is important because the quest for families like mine throughout our state history – to provide a better quality of life and educational opportunities for their children in the midst of systemic and seemingly insurmountable inequities – continues today. This is why this work is so important to me.
I frequently think about how my great-great grandparents left Georgia so that I can have the opportunities and life that I have today, the greatest of which was access to a quality education. My ancestors literally died and sacrificed for me to be here leading this work.
I am Pearl Dixon-Harris’s wildest dreams!
More than 100 years – a full century – separates the time Lodrick and Pearl Harris left Georgia with the moment I arrived in APS as a Harvard resident and then as the district’s first Chief Equity and Social Justice Officer. I find it serendipitous that I returned to Georgia, more specifically Atlanta, to support APS in breaking the historical patterns of inequity that have resulted in far too few black, brown, and low-income children succeeding at high levels.
I am honored to serve at a time such as this, especially considering recent events. The time is now, and I get to take a part in shaping our future.
I look forward to working with Superintendent Lisa Herring and the entire Atlanta community as we labor to undue centuries of systems and structures that have served as barriers for many of our children for far too long. Collectively, we can ensure that whether that no matter where a child lives in our city and region, they have access to excellent, equitable, and engaging educational experiences in every APS classroom, every day.
And, I know we can do this because we stand on the shoulders of giants – not only those of the civil rights legends we celebrate this month but also on those of our families and ancestors. Their feats and spirit show us we can.