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Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Flying with a local Black History icon

Yesterday was the inaugural Savannah Campus' Black History Month lecture. I invited The Honorable Tammy Stokes who happens to be a local Black History icon. Among many other things, she is the first African American woman judge in Chatham County and she is the chief justice.  I take pride in that I pulled the friend card and got her to attend.  I will say this again, I have amazing friends.

It was wonderful and relevant to have a local icon speak. Black History as will all histories is evolving. Every day someone is doing something monumental. Maybe not on a national level, but certainly on a local level and local level contributions are important. Elizabeth Jennings comes to mind. She refused to get off the trolley in New York in 1854. I did not learn this is school.

History even black history happens all of the time. As I mentioned above Judge Stokes was the first woman judge in Chatham County. Local history at its finest. At its finest even when there were some very dark times for her. Being an icon is not always a smooth row to hoe. Being able to talk with a local legend is always a bonus. It was nice to see what grace and dignity under fire look like in real life. To be able to ask the questions that help us to understand and often not understand why things are or aren't. Helping us craft our own recipe for success while dutifully avoiding the pitfalls that are placed in our paths.

Judge Stokes' talk did not focus on herself. She concentrated on Henrietta Lacks and her amazing continued contribution to society mostly done without her or her family's approval or knowledge.  She died in 1951 and to this day her cells are used international research.

Judge Stokes articulated that she had not heard of Henrietta until recently and that there should be an awareness that there are more Black History icons outside of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and the other well-known people that we see on posters year after year. The ones we learn about in school year after year as if the list is finite and that there as so few of them. That is so not the case. Cynthia Marshall in a perfect example. She is the first black woman to be CEO of an NBA team. I had no idea.

After her talk, she came to my class and answered student questions. She briefly discussed the notion of justice being fair, not equal. She detailed her experiences as a judge and as a woman of color. It was very enlightening. I think it was the first time my students were in the presence of a judge without being in a courtroom. She gave out tidbits of sage advice and they were fascinated as was I.

Like Judge Stokes, I discovered that there is so much of Black History that I did not know. This year I have learned more about Black History than ever before. I even created a hashtag on Facebook #morelearning so that later I can go back and compile my learnings. I waffled between emotions: excited, baffled, and angry.  Excited to learn new things about the ways blacks have contributed to our society even in times of great physical hardships. Baffled that I was not taught these things in school and that I as a highly educated woman did not read about these things in life. And finally angry that so many atrocities happened at depths that I will never understand and that restitution and/or adjustments have not completely been made. And when I hear that we have come a long way, I think perhaps, but not far enough. Am I supposed to take pride in the advancement of change that is far from being fair and just?

I have no answer to that question. I will just continue to learn as much as I can. I will make a more concerted effort to seek out and celebrate the local icons. Like Judge Stokes, they are part of the tapestry that is proudly Black History and ever evolving. 

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