- In 1973, Bill Grace & Leon Dixon founded the W.E.B. DuBois Learning Center.
- The center offered academic tutoring with Afrocentric material and themes.
- The organization’s success was due to strong leadership, togetherness, and a dedicated army of volunteers.
The ’70s marked the start of a new era. Black Americans were moving from the civil rights era to a new era of Black Power and Black Pride.
This transition to Black Consciousness thinking was led by a growing number of young activists. In Kansas City, two of those young leaders were Bill Grace and Leon Dixon, who recognized the role a good education – not just in basics but in our history and culture – was to this growing cultural phenomenon.
In 1973, they came together to form the W.E.B. DuBois Learning Center, and creatively developed an academic tutoring program, embedded with Afrocentric material, topics and themes.
“The academic advancement was the cake; the Afrocentric exposure was the icing,” wrote Leon Dixon in his 1994 book “Future in Our Hand.”
Quality academics and Black Consciousness remain the foundation of what would become a nationally recognized program that has lasted 50 years and educated thousands. But, don’t think for one minute that it was easy.
Dixon & Grace
William Bryant “Bill” Grace was born in 1943 in Allenton, AL, and joined the Air Force to better his status in life. After the Air Force, Grace was on his way to California to live when he stopped in Kansas City to visit his older brother.
That was 1966, and Grace hasn’t moved since. While Grace was in KC, he ran across an old Alabama acquaintance who shared with him information about what was happening in the “movement” in areas like Detroit.
That started Grace’s lifelong reading and studying about the Black experience.
Lester Leon Dixon Jr., born in 1940, is a KC native. A coach helped him get a football scholarship to attend Texas Southern University, where he earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in mathematics.
When he returned to Kansas City, he landed a job at Bendix, one of the city’s largest employers. It was there that a coworker handed him a copy of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”
When they were introduced to the Black Consciousness Movement, both Dixon and Grace totally embraced it. Today, they are among the most well-versed Black history scholars in the city. We guarantee, if you spend 15 minutes with these brothers, you’ll leave enlightened.
Dual Tutoring Programs
It was their interest in Black Consciousness that led both men to start educational programs for Black youth in the Kansas City area.
Grace was part of a group of young community activists who established a Youth Leadership and Development Program at Paseo United Methodist Church, a church under the leadership of the Rev. John L. Preciphs.
Grace was working with a group of “troublesome” boys at Central High School, teaching them from his personal materials on the Black movement.
The boys responded positively, and Grace wanted to make the program available for more youth. He moved the program from Central to Paseo UMC. That was 1972.
One of the books they studied was “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. DuBois. To make a statement and to help keep the name alive, he decided to name the program the W.E.B. DuBois Reading Center.
Dixon, who worked with friend Emanuel Cleaver to form a Kansas City chapter of the Southern Christian Leader Conference, was tutoring children one-on-one in math and spreading the word about Black history.
He saw how much both were needed and realized he could reach more youth if he organized a tutoring program. He took the idea to the SCLC and they agreed to help sponsor the program.
The SCLC Mathematics Clinic launched in fall 1973.
Despite their similar interests in the Black Conscious Movement and in tutoring, Grace and Dixon didn’t know each other.
Pastor Preciphs, who had become active with SCLC, knew them both and their complementary interests and programs. He arranged a meeting between them, and they agreed to join forces. Dixon accepted the W.E. B. DuBois name, and Dixon agreed to change “Reading Center” to “Learning Center,” because they both felt it allowed for the addition of more programs in the future.
A Winning Team
In addition to their knowledge and awareness of Black history and culture, both Dixon and Grace had an overwhelming willingness to help others.
But there were a lot of differences between the two. Dixon shared some of their differences in his book.
“Grace is more action-oriented, Dixon is more pensive; Grace is more of an implementor, Dixon is more of a visionary; Grace is most comfortable with folk from the ‘streets,’ Dixon is most comfortable with folk from the ‘suites,’” wrote Dixon.
Their “complementary dualism” was an asset for the growth and sustainability of the Learning Center.
Early on, they decided to remain as free as possible from “outside” influences that often “with good intentions” seek to influence the programs they support.
Remaining free of those influences meant paying their own way, at least early on, while they made sure the program got off to a good start and continued that way.
With limited funding, the organization depended on volunteers and worked out of facilities that were controlled by members of the community. In this case, churches.
As the program began to grow, they recognized the need for a program administrator. It was a role Grace stepped into and served in for decades while Dixon managed the tutoring and academic portion of the center.
By the early ’80s, the learning center was a successful program attracting not only students but a great group of volunteers. Many of them stayed with the organization for years.
A large number of the math tutors were young Black engineers, who were recruited to KC to work for some of the city’s major employers. While many of the reading volunteers were current or retired educators, a lot of them were just individuals with a desire to give back.
The program finally moved out of the churches in 1982 when they were given as a donation a former home for boys, located on 4.5 acres of land near 55th and Cleveland. The group received the property from the Leon Jordan Memorial Foundation, an affiliation of Freedom, Inc., that had accepted the donation of the land with the intention of passing it on to an organization doing great things in the community. That organization was the DuBois Learning Center.
They consolidated their programs at the new facility, leaving the churches behind, and the organization grew in leaps and bounds. By the organization’s 15th birthday, there were nearly 400 students attending the learning center each day.
Working from that location for the next 25 years, the center grew and offered expanded programming that included:
• College and vocational counseling
• Science tutoring
• Computer & IT programming training
• Media programming
At its peak, W.E.B. DuBois had more than 600 students enrolled and a long waiting list.
The Secret Sauce
What makes an organization last 50 years when so many fail? It starts at the top.
Dixon and Grace agree, saying a successful organization’s leaders must not only have a clear idea of why and what they want to accomplish but they must be seen as having a deeper commitment to the organization’s vision and be willing to work harder at it than anyone else.
“How can you expect anyone else to do what you are not willing to do?” wrote Dixon in his book.
The duo said another secret to the organization’s success was togetherness.
“I can truly say that in all these years, I have seen no envy, jealousy or rancor among the prime movers at the Learning Center,” wrote Dixon.
Beyond Dixon and Grace, the organization was supported by an Army of volunteers who gave unselfishly to the Learning Center over the years. The volunteers were at the core of the organization’s success.
“Just as you build a building brick by brick, you build an organization person by person,” wrote Dixon. “The people involved with the Learning Center believe in its objectives and its vision, believe in themselves and their ability to make a contribution and, perhaps most importantly, believe that we are making a difference – to individuals in the community as well as the community at large.”