OAKLAND, Calif. - It was a night to celebrate, to recount history, to look to struggles yet to come. A night to dream, to dance, to sing songs, and hear poetry. To honor the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
Above all, it was a night to appreciate the contributions and achievements of members of the African American community - from 97-year-old Mother Lahella Charles to the youthful singing groups, the Martinez sisters and the Ware-Carter trio.
And to hear the Paul Robeson favorite, "Ol' Man River," a rousing "We Shall Overcome," and other songs performed by the outstanding bass, Lawrence Beamen.
"This is Black History Month and I just want to tell you kids, make sure you guys dream!" Samantha Allen Wise told the many young people in the crowd that packed the Niebyl-Proctor Library. "Parents: allow your children to dream," she said, "because if they have a dream they're going to move forward toward that dream!"
Wise, one of the event's awardees, heads the Community Empowerment Organization, or CEO, the group that each year brings thousands of kids to the city's Mosswood Park for a giant, fun-filled and free Easter egg hunt. In between, she mentors 50 young girl cheerleaders.
Another awardee, journey-level electrician Rachel Bryan, underscored the importance of Wise's remarks as she told how her mother, born and raised in Texas, "never became a nurse because she had never seen a black nurse." Bryan, a leader in her local union, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 595, works to help build relations between the union and the communities its workers serve.
Carole Ward Allen, professor of African American history and former Bay Area Rapid Transit board member, turned the tables on the event's lead organizer, retired teacher Cassandra Lopez - affectionately known as Mama Cassie - as she observed, "It's always interesting how people honor other people, but they need to be honored. It's her night if it's anyone's," Allen said, "because we started out during Black Power and all that period, and I see [her former students] - they look like some of the brothers I had in my classroom that many years ago!"
And indeed, Lopez was honored with a plaque presented by her daughter, Paulina Lopez, and other family members, that cited "her continuing and tireless energy and the work she has done to better the community and the people who live within."
Lopez, in turn, urged the crowd to celebrate "the achievements, the good things that happen," but at the same time to take on "the things that challenge our souls and our hearts," including the homicides wracking the city of Oakland: "Too many of us have lost loved ones and family members. Each and every one of us matters."
Union and community activist Jean Damu opened the program with an appreciation of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which "changed the character of the Civil War and the North's ability to win it." With the position of black troops in the union armies legalized, Damu said, the way was open to form the many all-black units that were decisive in winning the war. The proclamation also helped strengthen the British abolition movement to such an extent that British intervention on the side of the South became moot.
The program was co-hosted by peoplesworld.org, Mamas 4 Obama Continued, and Nitty Gritty Community Club.
Photo: Kamea Ware, Naomi Carter, and Kawaai Ware perform at the Black History Month celebration. Marilyn Bechtel/PW