Community members young and old gathered together to celebrate Black History Month last night at Riverhead High School.
The event, which drew a crowd of 300 people to the high school auditorium, celebrated African-American culture, art and music and the accomplishments of notable African-Americans from the local community and around the world.
The program’s emcee, high school math teacher Athelia Ford, encouraged audience members to not just watch but clap, sing, and move along with the music, dances and poetry.
Students performed an assortment of music by famous African-Americans such as the 1950s jazz standard “Centerpiece,” performed by the middle school jazz ensemble. Choruses from Riley Avenue, Roanoke Avenue and Pulaski Street performed songs by Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Ray Charles, James Brown, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5.
Other famous African-Americans were celebrated, but for their political and social achievements. The high school’s Council for Unity highlighted the 150th and 100th anniversaries of the 15th and 19th amendments, respectively. Famous social and political activists such as John Mercer Langston, Hiram Rhodes Revels, Robert C. Henry, and Barack Obama, were noted as the firsts in various U.S. political positions.
Not just rock and jazz music, but Gospel music also echoed in the auditorium.
“Gospel music is a major part of the black culture, it’s more than just singing,” said Ford. Members of the First Baptist Church of Riverhead vibrantly danced along to “African Medley” by Tye Tribbet.
Girls from the Butterfly Effect Project danced along to “War Cry” by Queen Naija and stepped along to their own beat and sang “Gotta reach to be a stepper. Gotta reach to know who you are.”
“We are a community to everyone, on stage and beyond,” Butterfly Project founder Tijuana Fulford said.
Throughout the performances, the crowd followed Ford’s advice. People tapped their feet, clapped, sang, and hummed along to the music and dance. The crowd was even more enthusiastic when members of the community went on stage to receive awards.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award was given to Donna Elmore. Elmore started as a teacher’s aide in Riverhead in 1982, but left for a brief time to take care of a sick family member in South Carolina. She returned to Riverhead in 1997 and began working for her teaching degree in 1999. She has worked at Pulaski Street Elementary School for 31 years.
The Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Marion Johnson. She has made significant un-sung contributions for both the students and faculty, Pulaski Street Elementary School principal Patrick Burke said. She had cooked food for faculty members in celebration of black history month for years. She has been a teacher in the Riverhead Central School District for 51 years.
“I believe the children are our future,” Ford sang — a line from a popular Whitney Houston song. Both of these teachers ensured that the students of Riverhead could be successful.
With the future ahead looking bright, local poets brought us back to the past.
Riverhead poet Sarah Bullock recited her poem, “What reason was I born to be?” She found the answer to her question 25 years later: spread joy and pray.
Robert “Bubbie” Brown discussed a time when bankers would call farmers to make sure it was okay that their African-American employees could have a house or car.
He then recited a poem he wrote for a commemoration ceremony in honor of Fletcher Booker. Booker was one of the first African-American landowners in Eastern Long Island. His poem was about a thirsty man looking for a drink of water. Most people made the man pay for water, but one man gave it for free, Booker.
Brown presented awards to the winners of the PFC Garfield M. Langhorn Jr. essay contest, Addison Heck, Isabella Umana and Dayami Carbajal Serrano.
The night ended with a memorial ceremony for the High School’s special education teacher, Lana Randall, who died in early January. The song “Thank You For Being a Friend” by Andrew Gold played while a slide show displayed pictures of her teaching, singing and with her family.
RiverheadLOCAL photos by Emil Breitenbach Jr.
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