Notable Black North Carolinians in a range of fields including history, film, agriculture and politics filled the Governor’s Executive Mansion on Thursday February 15th for the Black History Month event “Preserving African American Heritage and Culture,” which was jointly hosted by Governor Roy Cooper and his wife Kristin Cooper in collaboration with The North Carolina African American Heritage Commission (NCAAHC).
Representing North Carolina’s divergent geographic regions and spanning generations, 15 honorees, “cultural preservationists who have dedicated their lives to preserving the stories, memories and contributions of African Americans from our state,” received The Old North State Award. The eleven in attendance included: storyteller Beverly Burnette, woodturner Charles Farrar, documentary curator Courtney Reid-Eaton, historical preservationist Dr. Ben Speller, race and history professor Dr. Darin Waters, cultural historian Dr. E. B. Palmer, quilter Jereann King Johnson, musician and soul food documentarian Justin Robinson, historian and researcher Lamar DeLoatch, architect Phil Freelon, and supporter of African American arts, Sherri Holmes.
Four recipients, historian Dot Redford, architect Zena Howard, actor, playwright and director Mike Wiley, and Underground Railroad historian Wanda Hunt McLean were not in attendance.
“I am actually exhilarated,” said Michelle Lanier, executive director of the NCAAHC, “I have this new surge of energy and hope for what can happen when you can unite a government that works for the people … with creativity and resilience and tradition. Especially in the lens of the AA experience, that is a powerful force.”
Lanier’s opening remarks highlighted the historic nature of the event which represented the first acknowledgement of the contributions of African American cultural preservationists to take place in North Carolina history under the state’s 75th governor, Roy Cooper, who has the most diverse cabinet in North Carolina’s history and whose wife attended a meeting with the NCAAHC.
Cooper went on to say that his cabinet is also, “the most talented in history,” highlighting specifically the accomplishments of his Chief of Staff, Kristis Jones, who is an alumna of North Carolina Central University and the first Black woman to hold the position. During his time at the podium, Cooper also read a proclamation declaring and uplifting February as Black history month while touching on some of the key accomplishments of Black people in North Carolina’s history, from the first regiment of Black soldiers to join the Union Army to the sit ins and the organization of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that happened in Raleigh.
In the immediate wake of the February 14th Parkland Florida school shooting, Governor Cooper reflected on the need for a more comprehensive system for background checks when it comes to buying semi-automatic weapons. He affirmed a belief that this could be accomplished without infringing on second amendment rights.
The invitees in attendance for the celebration included many who themselves are important contributors to the state and their local communities. A number of Cooper’s cabinet members were in attendance, as well as acting state representatives, county commissioners, recent political candidates and other members of state government.
“It was important for us that the guests be reflective of the honorees so that [they] could look out on a community that mirrored their values and their commitments,” said Lanier.
“This is a critical point of intervention right now, [with] all the consternation and racial division…to have an opportunity to highlight all the enormous contributions that have been made by African Americans,” said NCAAHC chair, Valerie Ann Johnson
“When we can be so divisive, we do need these moments of reconciliation and a reminder that we show up in important ways in our state’s history… I’m appreciative [yet] when I put it in perspective … it is also something that has been overdue. So the appreciation is that finally a governor recognizes something like that,” she said.
Further information about the honorees, all of whom have rich and varied backgrounds, can be found at https://www.ncdcr.gov/preserving-north-carolina-african-american-history-culture
Highlights captured by Sr. Photographer Mel Brown: Click here