Black past, Black present, Black excellence--Black History Month--were celebrated with joy and passion, praise and prayer yesterday afternoon at Pastor Karl Angelia Adair's small but packed New Beginnings North Shore Church at 930 Pitner. I was honored to have been invited, humbled by Pastor Karl and his wife Angela Adair's hospitality, moved by the dance, music, and song, and inspired by the words of the speakers and honorees.
The event honored "2020 History Makers" Robin Rue Simmons 5th Ward Alderman and the incredibly talented Evanston Township High School (ETHS) Junior Howie Godfrey, composer, director, conductor, and producer of the musical "Locker No. 89." ETHS Sophomore Isabella Victorson joined Howie to sing selections from the musical (they almost blew the church roof right off!)
Dino Robinson, founder and executive director, Shorefront Legacy Center, offered the keynote speech, and Daniel A Epstein, candidate for Illinois Supreme Court offered remarks about his plans to reform the court if elected. Students Tia and Tara Tate performed the poem, "I am an African American Teen," and Em Lorraine danced to "Glory."
Hon. Delores Holmes and 2nd Ward Ald. Peter Braithwaite attended the event, and Ald. Holmes presented Ald. Rue Simmons with her award.
Here are some of the stories and history speakers shared. Please take some time to watch the whole event in the video below--and don't miss the singing and dancing and INCREDIBLE performance by Howie Godfrey and Isabella Victorson.
"We’re here to celebrate Black history month and I’m so grateful for my past and my family and I’m grateful for being an African American woman in 2020. I’m grateful for the lineage that I came up through and the legacy my family’s left me.
"My family’s from the Deep South as they called it—a little town in Mississippi--so growing up I heard all of the stories that I’ve learned to appreciate.
"My mom and dad and my grandparents, they picked and chopped cotton. I know the difference between picking cotton and chopping cotton. We’re so privileged now.
Some of our children don’t realize just how privileged they are to go to the bathroom, any bathroom, when you feel like going to the bathroom. To go to any store and shop. But the one thing I’m so grateful for is that my family reminded me of the wealth that I have, because what they poured into us was like a wealth of knowledge. So now I teach it to my children, because, guess what, the school systems don’t always teach it. We are amazing people. We are amazing people."
Pastor Karl Adair:
"We still celebrate Black History Month because we think the black experience is still far too important for us to lay aside and forget about it.
"My father was a singer. My grandfather was a quartet singer. My great-grandfather was a singer. Singing has always been in my family. My family came from the same town in Mississippi.
"When my grandparents came to the north, my grandmother was the first one in her family — a family of 13 kids— to come to the midwest. She came at a time when there were no streetlights. And they had the iceman come. They came to the north and brought music from the south.
"Whatever your gift is … believe me, you weren’t the first to get it. There’s someone in your family, your bloodline, it just passed on down. So today we come to celebrate that what’s going on in our lives is because of people who have paved the way and put in time."
"My family is from South Carolina and from Arkansas and they all made their way to Chicago. And what’s important to me is how we gathered together for mini family reunions.
My dad is one of nine children. My grandmother died when she was 101, two years ago.
"This was her conversation in the last few hours of her life on this planet: she was barking orders, telling stories, sharing history. And every time she shared a piece of new history she’d say, 'I’m tired. My time is done here.' Then she’d pause, and say, 'I got one more story.' And she told each and every person that was there how important family is, how important history is. And I sat and watched four, five generations in this small hospice room as my grandmother was preparing herself for her passing.
"Black history is American history. It’s not a subset of history. It’s American history. On a very specific subject matter. Because our history didn’t start when we arrived on the shores of the United States. Our history began before that. Our song, dance, how we commune as a community, that has been passed down from generations on the continent of Africa. They had dance that defined who they were. Symbols that defined who they were. And they celebrated that between communities in Africa to show the pride they had in the community. They shared their histories with drumbeats with gatherings around fires, with artifacts in their homes. Their history was there.
"We had a pause in our history: the transatlantic slave trade. We came here. We were stripped of our name, our culture. But we reinvented ourselves here in the United States, developed a way of life that had some semblance of our past on another continent.
"We need to own our history. We need to control our narratives. And be proud of sharing our collective histories and legacies in this country.
"Think about this. Look at your own archives. Your own families. Start asking questions. Start recording histories. Start sharing that with your families. Because it’s up to our youth to carry that torch on so we know what our struggles were, what our successes were, and how we contributed to this greater American history."
Ald. Delores Holmes:
"My family migrated to Evanston in 1939, and I grew up here. I was born in a little town called Spring Hill, Tennessee. But this is my home because I've been here since I was three years old. I love Evanston. For it’s resources, it’s rich history. Because we are a peculiar community. And I say that with love."
Ald. Robin Rue Simmons:
"I didn’t come prepared to say anything, but it’s Black history month, and I’m a Black woman in Evanston. So I always can speak.
"My story starts here in Evanston. I was privileged to grow up in the village that we had to establish because of the community we lived in. And so I went K-3 to Faith Christian Academy and the privilege of going to a school with peers and instructors that reflected me and pursued Black excellence.
"And it wasn’t until I went to Lincolnwood that I understood disparity. That was my first experience with busing. I was bused out of the fifth ward to Lincolnwood, and it was playdates that showed me that I was different. No issue. But different: I had a little fewer things; My house wasn’t as big; both parents weren’t in the house after school; and I couldn’t walk home. And that’s when I saw the disparities—in grade school.
"I didn’t experience discrimination and racism till I was 11 years old. Most of you know I was a product of Family Focus programming, and they were so good, they got scholarships for us, and I took dance classes at Gus Giordano, which I am sure we could not afford, at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center. And it was there I had my first experience with racism.
"We were doing leaps—and I’ll never forget it—we were doing leaps and I was trying to leap really well, really high. Do the most with my leap. And the dance teacher told me: we aren’t doing that type of leap, we’re doing this type of leap. And your’e here on scholarship so you should make sure that you stay in line.
"And I didn’t know what 'scholarship' was but I knew it was back to that disparity. And I never went back, because I didn’t feel welcome.
"I started working on issues at King Lab, and there I started with government and justice and doing my part. My first unsuccessful run for office was 8th grade student council. I didn’t win. I made up for it. When I go to the high school, I was able to work on behalf on the community. I was student council president for three years. I graduated a year early. We had walk-outs and sit-ins and fundraisers and food drives.
"But I’m really proud to be an Evanstonian today and what we’ve done as a community--Black and white. We did this together. Black and white. Reparations could not have been done with me alone. We have a governing body of nine aldermen and that vote was 8-1. So I accept this on behalf of the residents of Evanston who were ready for us to celebrate Black history--not in ceremony, not honorific, not in statement--but also in action.
"We have taken a very aggressive and radical step here so that black residents can have the same lived experience as everyone else. So we can bridge the gaps, bridge the disparities, uplift families with financial inclusion and everything else we’re going to do.
"Thank you, Evanston, for believing in the Black lived experience.
"The fact is that we’re living history. That fact that we do it with such resilience. The fact that we celebrated 400 years of Black resilience last year. That we still show up proud and strong and ready and excellent even though we have to everyday deal with micro-aggressions and looking at police terror and how that impacts our lives--and we still show up.
"So I’m proud to be Black. I’m proud of everybody here that’s Black. It’s a special time in our city to be Black. The fact that we had foremothers and forefathers that came here under the conditions they came, and we went through Jim Crow, and redlining, and discrimination, and we are here today, right now, still believing we belong and still trying to be excellent says that we are an extraordinary people. And young people, you need to know that. It's your time, young people, to rise up and be great and be whatever you want to be, because you can do it."
Watch the full video with remarks, song, and dance here:
Make sure to click toward the end for Howie Godfrey and Isabella Victorson's amazing performance.