Justine Durant may be a trailblazer herself, but she also comes from a long line of them.
Currently serving as president of the Board of Trustees of Spring ISD, Durant was the first Black woman to serve on the board when she started in 2006. Nearly two decades later, she says her dedication to public education and hard work ethic is an inherited trait.
That is because her father, James T. Durant, was a man so beloved and recognized for his hard work and dedication to community that he was recognized by the Michigan House of Representatives upon his retirement in 1983. That House Resolution called him “one of those rare individuals who considers it an obligation to work towards the betterment of the community” and someone with “extreme sensitivity to the concerns of those around him.”
James Durant was a native of the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, also known as the Black Wall Street for its abundance of black-owned businesses.
The neighborhood was home to more than 600 businesses, 21 churches, 21 restaurants, 30 grocery stores, a hospital, and its own school system when it became a part of history on May 31, 1931. When James Durant was just 6 years old, the Tulsa race massacre took place over two days. The event, which is widely considered the single deadliest racial violence incident in American history, killed up to 300 people.
“He recalled my uncles and his dad lining the walls in one of the bedrooms with all the mattresses and having everyone on the floor to block the bullets,” Justine Durant said. “It was something he talked about as we grew up.”
In a survivor’s testimony many years later, James Durant recounted the massacre as if it had just happened.
“I wish I could forget it, but I can’t. It’s just engraved in my mind,” he said in the testimony. “I can shut my eyes and feel the terror I felt as a 6-year-old lying on the floor listening to the bullets hit our house.”
He was eventually able to escape via a bus to Tulsa’s outskirts, with his mother and siblings. But his father was separated at one point, and the family feared he had died before they were able to be reunited several days later.
“The riot was just an excuse to destroy the progress that had been made,” he told a newspaper many years later. “The basis of the riots was the destruction of the black community that was doing very well.”
But that loss and destruction is not the end of James Durant’s story, as his daughter likes to point out. Even though his family’s house was burned down to the ground, they rebuilt their home — and their lives.
“He went on to graduate from Lincoln University in 1938 with a degree in engineering, and minored in architecture and economics. Right after he graduated, there was, of course, World War II.”
Although he was never called to active duty, he was stationed at Willowind Air Force Base outside of Detroit, Michigan. There he worked on designing bomber planes that were used throughout the war, specifically helping to design the tail section.
After the war, Ford Motor Company hired his entire design team, and James Durant became the first Black engineer at Ford Motor Company. But he soon discovered that his love of community could be used elsewhere, in education and community activism.
After getting a master’s degree in Vocational Education, he started working for the Detroit public school system. When he recognized a need for specialized vocational education for at-risk students with various learning and emotional disabilities, he developed a curriculum called “Multi-Emphasis Trade Training” that offered training and pre-vocational courses in custodial processes, shoe repair, small motor repair, upholstery, carpentry, barbering, culinary arts, and more.
“He was so ahead of his time,” Justine Durant said. “These students were getting a salary while learning these skills. It’s an idea and a system that we still use to this day, even here in Spring ISD.”
A first-of-its-kind school, Durant worked diligently to get the program funded, eventually receiving both federal and state funding. At the time, he shared his passion for equitable education — a concept well ahead of his time — with a local newspaper.
“The news media, community, federal, state, and civil agencies must unite behind the concept that education is adaptable,” he said. “And it must be adapted to the needs of the individual student and not the student to the educational system.”
He eventually served for more than 40 years within the Detroit public school system, many of them as principal at the John. C Dancy School, where his vocational school began.
But his community activism extended beyond just the school system. In Inkster, Michigan, just outside of Detroit, he was a crucial part of developing governmental housing there, specifically the Carver Homes subdivision. He became even more involved in the success of the neighborhood when he helped found and manage a co-op grocery store, the largest in the state. It was a community gathering place, as well as a source of healthy food and income for the community.
It is clear that Justine Durant comes from a long line of successful trailblazers, a family that valued education and hard work. But those achievements are not the important part of the story, Justine Durant believes — it’s the resilience.
“The resilience of my ancestors and my father, and how we continue to survive is astounding. Not just survive, but how we have soared,” she said. “Coming from a massacre to the amazing accomplishments my dad made, and even the amazing accomplishments myself and my relatives have made. That all of this still happened, no matter the obstacles or the challenges faced, is inspiring.”