DANVILLE – Five “living historians” shared personal stories Wednesday morning about their experience growing up and living in Danville prior to and during the Civil Rights Movement.
The community pillars, who ranged in age from 71 to 81, also dispensed advice to a young audience of Danville Area Community College students who had gathered to listen.
The panel discussion was the first of three special events following the theme of “Black History: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.”
The guest speakers at Wednesday’s event, “Yesterday: Black History in Our Community,” included retired Public Safety Director Carl Alexander and his wife, Janet, who retired from District 118; retired District 118 principal Alice Payne; District 118 school board member Gladys Davis; and Rose Butler, tutor and mentor at the TRIO Student Success Center at DACC.
Tinisha Shade-Spain, interim CEO and president at Vermilion Advantage, moderated the discussion and prompted the speakers on various topics.
In recalling her earliest memory of racial discrimination, Payne said she was 10 years old when her family decided to travel to Mackinaw Island, Mich., where they were greeted with stares and a less-than-warm welcome.
“They had not seen a car full of African-American people before,” she said.
Davis, who grew up in Beeler Terrace, said her mother wanted what was best for her and her siblings, so she enrolled her at the integrated Washington School rather than attending the 100 percent black Jackson School.
“My mother knew they would be integrating all the schools,” she said. “She made sure she enrolled me at Washington School because she wanted something better for me.
“I didn’t have any trouble, but all my friends went to Jackson School,” she said. “By the time I was in fourth grade, they started sending other black children to my school.”
Davis added, “I don’t feel like I look different, but I remember being call black and not being able to swim in a swimming pool.”
Janet Alexander said her father, Samuel Graham, was the first African-American principal in District 118. He served as principal at Jackson and at Collett schools.
Even with her father being a prominent community member, Alexander said she faced discrimination when her mother tried to enroll her dance classes.
The dance school decided it was easier to create a separate class for Alexander instead of including her in the classes with white students.
“She said it would have hurt her business to integrate me in her classes,” Alexander recalled. “She was afraid she would lose the white students.”
Alexander’s husband, Carl, who is a retired Danville police chief, said he experienced discrimination during his military service in which his job was to prepare nuclear weapons.
“You knew it was coming,” he said. “You learned how to deal with it.”
He also said he was dissuaded from applying for the Danville police chief post in the late 1990s despite his years of experience as a Veterans Affairs Chief of Police and as the head of homicide on the Washington, D.C. police force.
“There had never been a black police chief in the history of Danville,” he said. “When I applied for the job, some people said, ‘you’re not going to get the job.’
“Lucky for me, they picked the best person for it,” he said.
All of the guest speakers agreed there is value in remembering past history so it isn’t repeated.
“If we don’t share it, we’re destine to repeat it,” Butler said.
Janet Alexander agreed. “We need to honor the past in order to make the future better.”
“We should talk about this so we can see how far we’ve come, but also how far we have to go,” Payne said.
“When I started teaching at Daniel School, some parents didn’t want their children being taught by a black teacher,” she said, adding, “Our skin tone might be different, but we’re all the same.”
“It undermines your self-esteem ... that you’re less than,” Davis said of discrimination.
The speakers also shared their hopes for the future and improving understanding.
“I’d like to see more diversity in the schools,” Payne said. “It’s good to see someone like you teaching in the classroom.
“Also, black history is every day,” she said. “It’s not just confined to 29 days.”
Butler implored the young audience to “start questioning why things happen a certain way. Challenge it.”
Davis said understanding happens when people love one another.
“One person can do a lot,” she said. “Assert yourself by saying hello and by helping others. It behooves us to be that gentle person.
“Encourage yourself and encourage others,” Davis said. “Love one another.”
The speakers also dispensed some advice to the young audience of DACC students.
“Open your heart and do for you,” Butler said. “Be the best you can be and share it with others.”
Payne said, “Go to school. You’re going to need a degree or skill.”
Janet Alexander added, “You’re going to face challenges. Don’t let anyone stop you.”
A soul food buffet prepared by Danville chef Mary Lewis followed the presentation and allowed some of the DACC students to visit with the guest speakers.
“It was very neat,” student Quint Taylor said. “It was definitely an eye opener.”
“I loved them,” student LaTonya Miller said. “The stories they told and the advice they gave about how we’re all the same.”
Student Ikirie Green agreed. “I liked the advice, especially open your heart and let people in.”
Student Jalon Glover liked what Carl Alexander had to say.
“I really liked it, but I especially liked the retired cop,” he said. “That’s what I want to go into.”
Student Sarah Askins said, “I think it was great and raises awareness and for the younger generation to know about black history.
“I wish it (program) was longer,” she lamented.
The second Black History Month event, “Today: Evolution of Gospel,” will take place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 19 in the Student Union in Lincoln Hall.
The public is invited to experience spiritual hymns, raps and more as they are taken on a journey through Black History with music.
Those participating include Kelsie Coleman, who is a published author of spoken word poems; DACC graphic design instructor Dwight Lucas Jr., who will play the saxophone; and DACC Admissions Office Specialist Stephen Scott, who will sing.
Student performers are encouraged to participate, and refreshments will be served.
The third event, “Tomorrow: Black History and Its Future,” will take place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 24 in the Student Union in Lincoln Hall.
The event will look at the future through the eyes of Meade Park Elementary School students along with guest speaker Nicole Carter, a nursing instructor at DACC.
Carla Boyd, who is DACC’s chief diversity officer and assistant vice president of student services, said she hopes to share a video the Meade Park students made last month highlighting the positives around Danville.
Carter will speak on future opportunities and challenges in health care for African Americans. Refreshments will be served.