Sunday’s Black History Month Extravaganza provided a look back and a path forward.
The program was held before a near-capacity crowd at Kewanee’s First Congregational Church and included city leaders, 74th Dist. Rep. Dan Swanson, a representative of U.S. Congresswoman Cheri Bustos and the choirs of Kewanee and Wethersfield high schools.
“It’s not just something for black people, but for all of America,” said the Rev. Marshall Jones of the annual month of commemoration, which was started by Carter G. Woodson Association of the Study of Negro Life and History in 1926 and formalized by President Gerald Ford in 1976. February was selected because both Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln were born that month.
Jones spoke of the “great gains” made by African American people since emancipation from slavery and how black people were and continue to be integral to the nation’s success.
“No slave or slave owner would have ever dreamed” of the great success of black people in the post-Civil War era.
“And these gains would not have been possible in any other nation than the United States,” he said, noting that black people quickly took advantage of educational opportunities and began contributing to the nation’s success.
“The realized it was the only thing that would allow their children to advance,” he said.
Jones listed several black Kewanee residents who had made contributions to the community and country, including James and John Culver, Wethersfield High School graduates in the late 1950s and early 1960s who became colonels in the U.S. Army and Air Force, respectively; Walter T. Bailley, the state’s first black architect; and a list that includes pastors, police officers and other community leaders.
“We can look at them as examples of what we should be doing,” he said. “We have a rich history right here in Kewanee and you wouldn’t necessarily know about it. It’s not something that happened way back when, it’s happening right now.“
The program included a video of the great achievements of black people throughout history, as well as local schoolchildren who read papers and poems they had written about influential African Americans, and an introduction of black students who are attending college thanks to local scholarships.
One of the most memorable mentions in the video presentation was that of Elijah McCoy, the son of runaway slaves and an inventor who eventually claimed 57 patents for oil production processes. His name became synonymous with quality, leading to the popular catch phrase “the real McCoy.“
Etta LaFlora, executive director of the Kewanee-based Sunshine Community Services Center, said that learning about black history is as important as ever in inspiring minority students to succeed.
“I always tell them, ‘You never know what doors you open for yourself if you work hard,’” she said.
“The baton is going to be in your hands soon, children,” Swanson said.
Following the program, attendees were invited to a reception in the church basement that included educational historical displays.