Dan Gill was nine years old when he got a harsh lesson in racism. He never forgot it.

Every day for fifty-three years, Dan Gill has stood in front of a classroom of students. His room is full and yet, one chair always remains empty.

It sits front and center, a poignant reminder of an injustice that happened long ago. One that ended up defining his life and is now, shaping the lives of generations of students.

And while the chair may be empty, it holds an invaluable lesson in inclusion.

A 9-Year-Old Comes Face-To-Face With the Ugliness of Racism

school photos of one black boy and one white boy

It was 1956 when Gill (white) and his best friend Archie Shaw (Black) excitedly knocked on the door of their friend’s New York apartment. They were there for his birthday party but when the friend’s mother opened the door, she informed them that she only had one available chair.

Confused, Gill told her that he could sit on the floor. “No, you don’t understand,” she responded.

“There are no more chairs.”

And that’s when it hit him. He was welcome but Archie wasn’t.

“I can still see this woman’s face,” Gill told the Washington Post. “I felt so bad because he had been humiliated. We gave her the presents and I said we’re going to go to my house, where there are plenty of chairs.”

The boys left, sobbing.

It’s a moment that’s stayed with him for more than 65 years.

The Empty Chair

Fast forward to 1970. Gill started teaching social studies with the Montclair School District. The Vietnam War was raging and the civil rights movement had come to an end after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

But Gill wasn’t done fighting. He was instrumental in helping to desegregate the Montclair public schools and every year, on Martin Luther King Jr. day, he would tell his story about Archie and the birthday party to his students.

Sometime in the 1980s, Gill decided he needed to do more. He wanted to honor his childhood friend every day of the year. And that’s when he got the idea for the empty chair.

“Kids work well with symbols,” Gill told CBS News. “It’s a reminder that they can do better — better academically, socially, and emotionally — but also to make people feel welcome and make this a better place to live.”

Over the years, hundreds of students have sat in Gill’s classroom and while they may not remember all of his lessons, they always remember the empty chair.

Gill retired in 2023 after 53 years of teaching. At the time, he was 75 years old.

A Legacy Lives On

Sadly, the two friends lost touch after elementary school, and last year, Gill learned that Archie passed away in 2021. However, his legacy will live on. Gill is currently writing a picture book, “No More Chairs,” that is being published by Little and Brown in 2025. He plans to dedicate it to Archie.

Our lives are made up of a series of moments. Many we forget, but some live with us forever, shaping us and defining who we become. For veteran teacher Dan Gill, that moment happened in the doorway of a New York City apartment when he was just nine years old.

He credits it for why he became a teacher and why it’s so important to him to share Archie’s story with the world.

“Not all of us can become president, not all of us can become senators, but if all of us do our due diligence in how we treat other people, then this will be a better world.”

Dan Gill

No one should ever have to experience the humiliation and heartache that Archie did that day. And while society has seemingly come a long way, we still have a long way to go when it comes to racial equality.

It’s up to all of us to make the people around us feel welcome, included, and accepted.

After all, everyone deserves a seat…literally and otherwise.