BY TRONE DOWD AND ARIEL HERNANDEZ
Borough leaders told the Press of Southeast Queens during an awards celebration held by the paper on Tuesday that Black History Month presents a great opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of African Americans throughout U.S. history.
The Press of Southeast Queens and the Queens Tribune held the fourth annual Black History Month event at Jamaica’s Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral of New York. The papers honored “Ambassadors of Change” throughout the community.
To gauge the importance of Black History Month in such a diverse borough, the Press asked community leaders what the month means to them personally.
“It means the world to me,” said Robert Capers, U.S. attorney for New York’s eastern district. “Once a year, the world slows down to celebrate all of the wonderful things that black people have done over the years.”
Last month, Capers was presented with the William Tucker Garvin Public Service Award by Queens District Attorney Robert Brown for his work in communities of color and acting as a role model for youngsters.
“I am one that believes that black history should be observed every day, but this allows us to take a retrospective look at those who have come before us, those who are with us and are living history and making history,” Capers said. “We hope that our children can see in these people what is ahead for themselves.”
Members of the NYPD attended the event in great numbers to support their colleague Deputy Chief Kristel Johnson, who was one of the event’s honorees.
“There have been a lot of accomplishments made in the history of African Americans and it’s important not to forget that,” Johnson said. “I would like to see more celebrations like this one in the future of Black History Month because it gives you an opportunity to learn about successful black people in your community that you might’ve not known about if there were no acknowledgement. We must continue to celebrate black history and not let it be forgotten.”
Other guests included Deputy Inspector Frederick Grover, Deputy Chief of Borough South David Barrere and Inspector John Cappelmann, who all expressed a shared sentiment of what Black History Month means to institutions like the city’s Police Department.
“I think that it is very important that we recognize it in the fashion that we do,” Grover said.
“It’s important that we have events like this. We always have to remember, especially in a community like this, to look back upon this history. An event like this brings everybody together in the community. It helps recognize certain figures in the community that have done significant things and have great roles that have impacted all of us. It’s wonderful to come together and do that.”
Barrare said that he sees it as an opportunity to learn crucial parts of our history that often get forgotten when educating young people.
“It’s really a great time for us because we get to learn about the traditions of African Americans,” Barrere said. “Every year, I learn something that I didn’t know previously and should have learned a long time ago. We get to see the rich, vibrant culture and traditions and, for me, on a personal level, learning is an integral part of observing this time of year and this part of history.”
Some of the other honorees reflected on their personal roots in African American history. Patrick B. Jenkins, who has worked in the community for a number of years on both legislative and civic issues, said that by celebrating Black History Month, we are ensuring that the torch is passed from one generation to another.
“As a descendant of slaves, it means a lot,” Jenkins said. “Of course, we want to see more time devoted to our history but, you know, Carter G. Woodson’s legacy is important to live on. It’s important that we have at least a month to focus on the contributions that African Americans have made to our country. It’s important to me because I know my roots and it’s important that the kids can get the history.”
York College President Marcia Keizs said that in today’s political climate, Black History Month inspires future history-makers to press on.
“It’s important that we remember our heritage and remember the folks who came before us,” Keizs said. “I think that this kind of event gives us a time to do that. Despite the fact that we are facing difficult times, if we reflect on the past and reflect on some of the individuals who made the breakthroughs, we know that breakthroughs are yet possible.”
The youngest of the honorees, entertainer and motivational speaker Colby Christina, gave a unique student perspective on the month.
“I feel grateful and humbled that my accomplishments are being honored,” Christina said.
“It’s very important to keep Black History Month alive and to make sure that it doesn’t fade away. My hope for the future of Black History Month in Southeast Queens is that we can put on one big event, open to everyone throughout Southeast Queens, acknowledging all of us. All of the organizations and groups in our community all share a similar message, so if we can all come together, that’d be great.”
Courtney Ffrench, who is the general manager of the Jamaica Performing Arts Center and artistic director of the Vissi Dance Theatre, said that African Americans “shouldn’t need a Black History Month” and that achievements in the black community should instead “be celebrated and taught every day in school curriculum.”
He said that he appreciated the fact that the occasion gave black people a reason to “come together as family.”
Phil Andrews, who is the president of the Long Island African American Chamber of Commerce, said that “it’s very important to celebrate the achievements and all that our ancestors have accomplished.” But Andrews said he’d also like to see more economic empowerment for Southeast Queens as well as an African American Day parade, which he believed would bring the community closer together.