Senior citizens celebrate Black History Month

By Maggie Cagney
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer

It was a gathering of all nationalities—African-American, Caucasian, Asian—in a room rich with history, to celebrate the heroes of a constant battle.

Senior citizens from Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County assembled at the Hargraves Community Center on Friday, Feb. 10, in observance of Black History Month.

Robert Brooks, far left, sits with friends Earl Watlington, Clyde Perry and Joe Farr at Hargraves Community Center’s Black History Month celebration. (Staff photo by Maggie Cagney)

“This month has been amazing for Carrboro and Chapel Hill,” said Carrboro resident Emily Gordon. “There’s a lot of history in this room.”

The program included breakfast, a speech by Fred Battle, trivia for the guests, and musical entertainment by Lisa Edwards.

“Your generation is what’s known as the greatest generation,” Butch Kisiah, head of the Chapel Hill Department of Parks and Recreation, said during his introduction.

Fred Battle, former president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, also spoke to the audience for the special occasion.

“It’s easy talking to seniors because you’ve been through a struggle,” Battle said to the audience as he began his speech. Battle said he had grown up and attended school in segregated Chapel Hill.

“If you survived, you’ve been in the struggle,” he said. “There have been many changes, but we’re not there yet.”

Lisa Edwards, public information officer for the Chapel Hill Fire Department, sang several songs dedicated to “the unsung heroes” in the audience, including “Hero,” “Lean On Me” and “Can’t Give Up Now.”

“Growing up in Chapel Hill you see a lot, and these people have been through a struggle,” Edwards said. “They sort of blazed the trail for all of us.”

Edwards said she chose the songs for the event because she thought they were appropriate for the audience since many of them had been in Chapel Hill and Carrboro during the civil rights movement.

“They are heroes for surviving,” she said.

And during the movement, Chapel Hill resident Robert Brooks was one of the many people in the middle of his own struggle—a struggle between his job and his friends.

Lisa Edwards sings “Lean On Me” at the Black History Month celebration at the Hargraves Community Center. (Staff photo by Maggie Cagney)

Brooks was the first African American police lieutenant for the Chapel Hill Police Department in 1969. But while most of his friends were participating in civil rights protests, Brooks was on the other side.

“I was right in the middle of it all,” he said.

Brooks said that although he was in law enforcement, he stood for what many of his friends were fighting for, which put him in a difficult position.

Despite his battle, Brooks worked for the police department for 30 years.

“You don’t see [a struggle] as much now, but it’s still there,” he said. “Years ago you could see the discrimination. I mean, after 30 years I never got promoted as captain. But you learn to live with it.”

And even during an event dedicated to the men and women who fought for equality and inclusion, Edwards said a struggle is still visible.

Edwards commented on how there was a large group of Asian senior citizens who attended the event and who sat at separate tables, which she said was partly due to the language barrier.

“It’s interesting because we teach our kids in school about inclusion, but you will see at these social events that there is still a divide,” she said.

Despite the evident separation, the sense of community remained, as all of the guests rose to sing “The Negro National Anthem,” which advocates for the lifting of “every voice.”

Before Battle ended his speech, he left the audience with a message from Martin Luther King Jr., a message that he said he lives by every day:

“If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a word or song, if I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong, then my living will not be in vain.”


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