05/02/04 — Wall of Firsts honors pioneers

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Wall of Firsts honors pioneers

By Jack Stephens
Published in News on May 2, 2004 8:14 AM

More than 50 black pioneers were honored Saturday night, during the first Imani weekend celebration, for their faith, motivation and determination while serving as local, state and national leaders.

Imani, which means faith, was the name given to the weekend, which concluded with a banquet in the NBA Greenleaf Grace Village senior citizen center. There, portraits were unveiled of the men and women who exhibited courage and bravery in their fields. Their pictures will hang on the "Wall of Firsts."

The keynote speaker, Dr. Johnnetta Cole, the president of Bennett College for women in Greensboro and the first black chairman of the national United Way board, urged the audience to have faith, to work and then to work hard to achieve the goals of racial equality.

Her picture, too, was placed on the wall along with the student who introduced her -- Sharrelle Barber, the daughter of the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. The Rev. Barber was an organizer of the event, which was sponsored by the Rebuilding Broken Places Community Development Corp.

Those honored also included Gov. Mike Easley, who graduated from a historically black college, and Beverly Perdue, the state's first woman lieutenant governor. Neither attended. Easley sent a letter of regret.

"We tried to recapture history before it was lost," Rev. Barber said. "We will continue until the walls of the building are filled."

Jane Rustin, the Wayne County Library director, said the Wall of Firsts "is a dynamic tribute" to those "people of courage, bravery and significance."

Others honored included numerous clergymen and women, school officials, city, county and state government leaders, law enforcement and fire personnel and doctors from Wayne County.

These included Mayor Al King, Rev. Glenwood Burden Sr., former Goldsboro Police Chief Chester Hill, former County Commissioner John H. Wooten Sr., Dr. Lonnie Hayes, Dr. O.R. Stovall III, Zelma Borah, James H. Carney Sr., Judge Jerry Braswell, former Goldsboro Alderman Earl Whitted and sports stars Mike Evans and George Altman.

But the honors also crossed county lines. Among those recognized were State Auditor Ralph Campbell, the first black member of the Council of State; former House Speaker Dan Blue, and government leaders from Durham, Fayetteville and Hertford County.

Dr. Cole said the audience should be agents for change. She asked whether racism or poverty were gone. If not, then she said her listeners should fix what is broken. She frequently quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who, she said, believed "you could build on Earth a beloved community."

The first responsibility, she said, was to have faith. "We must believe change is possible," she said.

Fifty years after a landmark Supreme Court case that banned school segregation, she said, racial inequality was still alive. But Dr. Cole said that black people are better today "because we can change our condition with God's help." Women still are not paid equally, but there is less gender inequality today, she said.

Faith alone, Dr. Cole said, was not enough. "You better get up and work. God helps those who help themselves," she said.

But a little work was not enough. Dr. Cole urged the old-fashioned ways -- education, legislation and even agitation -- to achieve change. She recalled four N.C. A&T men who sat in 1960 at a Greensboro lunch counter. But then she noted that 250 Bennett women went to jail in support of desegregation.

Quoting Dr. King again, she said, "To serve, all you need is a heart full of grace motivated by love. To make the changes we need, you got to believe. ƒ You've got to do the work and take action. Be an agent of positive change."

At the end of the banquet, Rev. Barber announced two new initiatives -- a summer camp for low- and moderate-income children and a "willing to touch" initiative to help blacks with health problems. Barbara Pullen Smith explained that blacks suffer a disproportionate number of major health problems.

Hundreds of people filled the auditorium. They also were entertained by the Goldsboro High School chorus, Bobby Sherrod and his son's drum call, and Tony Edmondson's singing.