By Tia Lynn Ivey
A small ship carrying the first African slaves sailed to the shores of Virginia 400 years ago on August 20, 1619, beginning America’s shameful and brutal history of institutionalized slavery and the long, arduous struggle for emancipation, justice and equality in the “Land of the Free.”
Last week, Americans across the country reflected on the 400-year anniversary with grief over the past, wisdom for present, and hope for the future.
St. Paul’s AME Church in Madison hosted a special forum last week featuring local African-American leaders and community members discussing what it means to be black in America after the first Africans arrived in this country 400 years ago.
“Four hundred years of triumph. Four hundred years of resilience. Four hundred years of making America one of the most powerful countries in the world,” said Jami Edwards of the black experience in American history. “There are not enough words for how I feel about today.”
Lift Every Voice, orchestrated by Jami Edwards, a Morgan County High School graduate who grew up in Madison, set out to celebrate the stories and contributions of black people in America throughout the last four centuries. The panel, hand-picked by Edwards, discussed their own personal experiences and advice for up and coming generations.
The panel featured Madison Mayor Fred Perriman, Second Vice President of the Morgan County NAACP Donald Melvin, Senior Executive Director of the Madison-Morgan Boys and Girls Club Karen Robertson, Pastor of Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church Aaron Carter, Minnette Lee, a paralegal for Right Way Legal Services, Jai Edwards, a mentor and civic leader, and Edmetris Moore, owner of This and That Breakfast.
Edwards wanted the panel to reflect a diverse array of expertise and perspectives in the areas of religion, education, economics, culture, business, civic service, and community engagement, as well as balancing voices from men and women, young and old.
“There are not enough words to describe how I feel about today,” said Jami Edwards, before asking the panel to think of one word to sum up how they feel about the last 400 years.
Panelists used words like “freedom,” “blessed” “vote” and “marathon.”
Edwards asked the panel to share the first moment they remember realizing that they were black and what that meant to them.
Mayor Perriman, who attended an all-black high school before schools were integrated, said he remembered having to walk to schools while white children passed him on the school buses throwing spitballs him and his friends.
“I knew then that we were different from them, but God made us all the same,” said Perriman.
Other panelists described moments when they were asked about their skin being darker or hair having a different texture.
“I am reminded every single day that I am black,” said Minnette Lee.
Jai Edwards recalled feeling like the “token black guy when he played sports with predominantly white teams and became a member of the Boy Scouts.
Donald Melvin recalled the first time he realized black children were deprived of educational resources when his teacher gave him a worn out textbook with ripped out pages.
“These books were from the white schools, old and handed down. The government didn’t give negroes new books,” said Melvin.
Aaron Carter told the story of the night Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. As a young boy he remembers hearing his father should at the television. “I knew they were going to kill him.”
“It was that moment that I knew I was black and that I was different,” said Carter.
The panel emphasized the importance of education and taking pride in black history. Many of the panelists recalled how black history was barely taught in their schools and they had to rely on their families, local communities, and churches to teach it.
“At school it was pretty much limited to Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks,” said Edmetris Moore. “They were the only they knew.”
Perriman noted that when he attended Pearl Street High School he was taught the history of both black and white people in America in depth. “We learned out history everyday,” said Perriman. But Perriman lamented that once schools were integrated, much of black history was
taken out of the curriculum.
“And yet today is a better today,” urged Perriman. “Our ancestors couldn’t see it, but they believed a better day would come and these are certainly better days.”
Some of the panelists urged the audience to stay involved in the church and keep the Christian faith.
“Church was the safe haven for black communities,” said Minnette Lee. She urged young people not to stray from the church just because society has progressed.
The panel also discussed how it felt to be alive for the first black president to be elected in America, Barack Obama.
Some of the panelists are old enough to remember the days of segregated schools, bathrooms and water fountains and expressed how meaningful it was to see an African-American man elected to the highest office in the country.
“I was elated when President Barack Obama was elected,” said Aaron Carter. “I didn’t think it’d live to see it, but I did.”
Karen Robertson, who leads the local Boys and Girls Club, urged the audience to invest in the younger generation by abandoning “every man for himself” mindsets and returning to “it takes a village” ethic.
“To whom much is given, much is required,” said Robertson. “When you get it, you are to share it. This is what our community and the black family was built upon.”
The panel also celebrated black culture, music, art and entertainment, sharing their favorite eras of music, television sitcoms, writers, and artists.
“Black is beautiful,” said Sheila Tolbert, who closed the forum. “Let’s bring that back to the forefront with all of our differences so we can still come together we can make our community great for what it is.”