No students, no problem: custodians repair an empty Wilson

Hadley Carr

In February last year, you may have seen the walls of the library expanded and painted red in celebration of Winston Salem State University. Its entrance was transformed into a museum bursting with information and images about the university’s history.

Though it appears to be the construction effort of many people, there is only one man behind the display. He’s the four-time HBCU door decorator custodian Demetrius Denson. 

Even in the pandemic, Denson arrives at Wilson at 6 every morning. Despite the scarce light, Denson walks through the entire building to check for intruders. At 8 a.m., the rest of the custodians arrive and disperse to complete their regular activities.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the custodians were able to complete tasks throughout the building that would often remain untouched when students were in school; shifting to replacing toilets, flush valves, retaining walls, and replacing light fixtures. 

Without students in the building, there was less immediate cleaning to be done. In fact, Denson estimates that they’ve cleaned and fixed 95 percent of the building. Now, after his 6 a.m. walkthroughs, Denson continues to walk around the building, looking for things to do.

Due to this increased productivity, the custodians asked for a staggered schedule a few months ago. For the custodians, a staggered schedule would mean not operating with the entire staff as they are doing at the moment. 

After they were denied by DCPS, custodians and employees at Wilson began completing their own research into the safety measures in other school districts. Eventually, they were granted a two-day break as time off, however the staff quickly returned to working in full stride.

Denson’s responsibilities extend beyond Wilson. After he leaves the building at 3 p.m., he heads to Marvin Gaye Recreation Center where he works until 9, totaling his work day to 15 hours, excluding transportation. However, his day doesn’t end there. He will often have to pick up groceries and run errands for himself and his two-year-old daughter. 

His daughter was part of the reason Denson was compelled to ask for a staggered schedule. Given her age, Denson’s daughter is too young to participate in virtual learning. He sends her to an in-person daycare provider, but worries due to the uncertainty when “your child is [at risk of being of] exposed because they’re around kids and around the daycare provider.”

But unlike many other government employees, custodians at Wilson don’t have the option to stay home. “[The custodians] are on the frontline,” Denson said, adding that if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ruled that the building was unsafe, the custodians would fix the issue. “We got to be in the building at all times. But nobody else has to be.”

With some students set to return to the building in February, the custodians “might have to do everything all over again,” Denson said. With students comes trash on the ground and food in the flowerbeds and light fixtures. With students, the holes that were filled to keep the mice and rats out may humble in comparison to the food littered.

But there are also students who clean up other’s trash without saying a word. “I respect those people,” Denson said. “I respect the recycling crew. I respect a lot of kids.” However, for the students that pee on the floor, tag the building, and break stuff, Denson has no respect.

Behind every piece of trash dropped, there are people who pick it up. Behind every piece of artwork on bathroom stalls, there are people who clean it up. Behind the things at Wilson broken, there are people that fix them. The custodians call themselves the little people because they “have all the information, all the knowledge, but nobody’s paying attention to them.”

One of these people is the father, door-builder, recreation worker, government worker, and Wilson custodian Demetrius Denson.