Dearborn, Mich., January 20, 2020 – This year’s celebration of Martin Luther King (MLK) Day of Service at Beaumont Commons, Dearborn is different than previous years.
“Normally, we hold a special program on MLK Day for all residents and families who wish to attend,” said Shavon Baker, activities supervisor for the senior living community. “Because our campus continues to follow CDC guidelines, we videotaped and interviewed two residents, Janet Whitaker and Darlene Harris, who were happy to reminisce with us.”
According to Baker, their stories will be shared in the “Acorn,” the campus-wide monthly newsletter, and the videos can be viewed by residents at the beginning of group exercise, currently limited to 10 people in each class.
Coincidentally, both residents interviewed lived and taught elementary school in Detroit. Whitaker was a second-grade teacher at Chrysler Elementary in downtown Detroit for 17 years before moving into administration, while Harris taught first graders at McFarland Elementary on Detroit’s west side.
Although Whitaker never had a chance to meet Dr. King, she said, “More than 30 years ago our choir at People’s Community Church in Detroit was invited to sing at Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta. What a thrill it was to sing in the church where he had preached.”
Harris also never met Dr. King, but she knew a lot about him. She said, “He was a great man, and we recently lost another great man – Congressman John Lewis, who walked with Dr. King.”
Her husband Allen Harris, who died in 2009, was a political and human rights activist. According to his wife, he was also steadfast about living in Detroit, even though he taught political science for more than 40 years at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn.
Harris recalled how the father of one of her students was concerned that his son would not have a black teacher when he started first grade. Harris, who is white, shared that the other first grade teacher was black, but her class was already filled.
“The student’s father and I had a nice conversation to explain how I taught,” said Harris. “At the end of the year, he came to me and let me know how very pleased he was that his son had been in my class. Every year, I still receive Christmas cards from his son, Cornelius Randolph. I would love to see him again.”
In addition to teaching, Harris and Whitaker share another common bond. Both are from Ohio – Harris from the Dayton area and Whitaker from Cleveland. To the possible chagrin of some of their neighbors, both are Buckeyes. Harris graduated from The Ohio State University with a degree in education while Whitaker spent three years in the university’s nursing program.
After marrying and moving to Detroit, Whitaker worked as a secretary for Detroit Public Schools and was encouraged by school administrators to continue her studies at Wayne State University (WSU), earning a degree in education. She later completed a master’s degree in administration at the University of Michigan and post graduate studies at WSU to become an education specialist.
It is evident that both women are not the kind to sit still. Whitaker enjoys using the community’s fitness room, and Harris attends morning exercise classes on campus. In the past, she participated in water aerobics at the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center.
Whitaker serves on a board at WSU’s Institute of Gerontology and as board member of the Michigan Parkinson Foundation. Because her husband Doug Whitaker has Parkinson’s disease, she understands the importance of staying active and serves as a facilitator for a Parkinson’s support group.
Both women were asked what advice they thought Dr. King would give people in today’s environment. Whitaker said, “Stay active, be productive, and continue to be nonviolent. Don’t get involved in activities contrary to our democratic beliefs.”
Harris added, “Keep the faith.”
Baker agreed, “It’s comforting to know the legacy of Dr. King lives on through these teachers and the students they taught.”