It’s one week until Aug. 28, the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He wrote part of it under a huge oak tree in front of the house in Virginia that now houses the Gloucester Institute, headed by Kay Coles James, a conservative African-American leader (see “The cavalry is not coming,” from the Feb. 23 issue of WORLD Magazine). Earlier this year, in front of students at Patrick Henry College, James told me about the house, her institute, and its programs for young African-American men and women, one of which has a Sept. 13 deadline.
Who built the house? Dr. Robert Russa Moton, second president of Tuskegee University. Mentored by Booker T. Washington, Moton was probably the most well-respected African-American in the 1920s, and an advisor to five United States presidents. When he retired from Tuskegee, he came to Gloucester, Va., and built a nine-bedroom mansion on the bank of the York River. There he opened his home and started inviting in thoughtful people to debate the important issues of the day.
What happened to the house when Dr. Moton died in 1940? He left it to his daughter and her husband, Frederick Patterson, who became the third president of Tuskegee University. In one meeting at the house, Dr. Patterson founded the United Negro College Fund. The house became known as the cradle of the civil rights movement. Every great civil rights leader in the history of America came there at some point. My aunt and uncle took me there when I was a child, picking me up out of the public housing project in Richmond, Va. I remember sitting on the floor, playing with dolls and reading books.
You remembered it so well that, years later, you wanted to go back? The people were beautiful and they were talking and the food was really good. When I grew up I wondered whatever happened to this magical place that I used to be taken as a child. We found it and the place was torn apart, with a rusted plaque on the building saying it’s on the national historic registry for all of the important things that happened here.
Was not only the house was torn apart, but also the community that it at one time served? I am 63, and I’ve seen the deterioration of the African-American community on my watch. I saw us move from an achiever community to a ghetto nihilistic community on my watch. So I wanted to design an organization where conservative thought and ideas had a home and were welcomed and could be debated, but also one that could have credibility in the African-American community. Out of that came a place where ideas could be debated, an environment where liberals and conservatives in the black community could come together, and let the best man or woman win.
I understand the Gloucester Institute, housed in that fixed-up home, has an Emerging Leaders program for African-American college students during the school year—application deadline is Sept. 13—and a Moton Fellows summer program … Yes, and I bring in all sides for the students. I teach them critical thinking because what’s missing most is the ability of young people to think through an issue and ask the second layer of questions. I tell them, “I don’t care if you’re a liberal or a conservative, but I do not do stupid. I don’t do talking points. We take issues and dissect them.” Some people leave my program and say, “I came as a Democrat and I’m leaving a Democrat, but I now understand there are valid points that conservatives make.” For me, that’s a win.
What else constitutes a win? I had a young man who had been in the program three years. He said, “Mrs. James, I really need to see you and your husband. Can I come over?” I said yes and was thinking, “Oh gosh, this kid had such promise, has he ruined his life? Is his girlfriend pregnant? What am I dealing with this Sunday afternoon?” He comes in, and I’m making tea and cookies and trying to make this easy because he’s obviously nervous. He sits down and he says, “I-I just don’t know how to say this, and you’re the first person I’ve said it out loud to, but I came to the realization I’m a conservative!” And I said, “Yeah, I know what that means. We’ll walk with you through this one, buddy. It’s gonna be tough. But I get it.”