Program honors icons of Black History in state
By Natalie Bell
For one amazing evening Feb. 11, family and friends, distinguished guests and members of the public joined New Hope Baptist Church in celebrating the enduring achievements of four mentors and role models while also paying tribute to the long tradition of African-American accomplishment.
The honorees: Rep. Robert Clark, who in 1967 became the first African American elected to the state Legislature since Reconstruction; Ineva Pittman, Jackson educator and community activist; Ellie Dahmer, widow of the Forrest County NAACP president Vernon Dahmer, who was murdered for encouraging people to register to vote; and Dr. Robert Smith, a college professor who has devoted much of his life to providing educational opportunities for students.
New Hope’s Pastor Dr. Jerry Young took time from his many demands as president of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., to share his love and praise for the guests of honor.
In response, these black history “living legends” offered inspired reflections, then issued a call to today’s youth to walk through the doors that they had opened.
“Thousands of African Americans growing up today are not taking advantage of opportunities that are out there,” Clark said. “That’s what we have been about, taking advantage of the opportunities.”
“Young people…you owe us something. You are deeply indebted to us,” Dahmer said.
Smith spoke of his love of teaching, saying that it grew from his experience walking to school as a child in Rayville, La. “I couldn’t understand why I had to walk so far,” he said, explaining that he never forgot his father’s words, “‘Son, you’re going to have to go to school to change it.’”
Like a true advocate for the rights of the underprivileged and with a spark of Moms Mabley-style satire, Pittman devoted her time in the spotlight to recognizing endeared persons in the audience, asking them to stand: her sons and daughters, members of her Sunday School and small group Bible classes, the Citywide Ushers, among others. She called for members of the Jackson Airport Authority to stand, and when no one did, her response was, “Well I’ll excuse them. They have their hands full – all that trouble we went through to get that place named after Medgar Wiley Evers.”
Each “living legend” was introduced by a young person who had studied the honoree’s achievements and written the introduction themselves.
Husband-and-wife program guides, Drs. John and Ruth Patterson, presented a brilliant tribute by reading aloud a poem written especially for the honorees, which required the audience to respond to their call, “We Speak Their Names.”
The 23-voice-Callaway High School Singers set a mood of black strife and protest with chorale singing, which included “Hear my prayer,” written by one of the great composers of African-American spirituals, Moses Hogan.
Program organizers recognized the choir’s director, Tamara Myles, for her efforts to educate and train students in the tradition of singing African-American spirituals. Myles, who is a pianist, is in her first year as choral director at Callaway High School.
The program was planned by a committee of New Hope members and coordinated by Flonzie Brown-Wright — the first black woman elected to public office in modern Mississippi.
This was an opportunity for members of the public to hear from four people, all in the same space, whose accomplishments, on behalf of African Americans – at different times and in places – had touched all of humanity, said Brown-Wright. Each honoree, now in their 80s and 90s, was willing and able to share in a comprehensive and connecting way, she said, and remarked that, “We had a good history lesson. We went to school.”
The Feb. 11th program was part of a month-long series of Black history celebrations at New Hope, titled “Back in the Day,” funded in part by the Mississippi Humanities Council.
The theme of tonight’s event is Youth Heritage Night: Committed to Moving Forward. Miss Mississippi 2014-2015 Jasmine Murray is the guest speaker. The Tougaloo College Choral Choir will also perform. The program begins at 6 p.m. Next week on Feb. 25 will mark the Grand Finale night of the series. The guest speaker will be Keith A. Beauchamp, filmmaker and producer, from New York, N.Y. Jackson State University’s MADDRAMA will perform and a film screening of “The Untold Story of Emmett Till” will be shown.