Black History Month Offers Conversation Opportunities

Black History Month Offers Conversation Opportunities

Holly Vincent
Sunday, February 21, 2021 12:00 AM
Community, Students, Employees

This article was written by Autumn Huges and published in the Cleveland Daily Banner on Feb 21, 2021:

For Willie Thomas, Cleveland State Community College’s assistant to the president on Equity and Inclusion, Black History Month offers an opportunity to reach out to young people in the community.

“Throughout the month we’ve been on a daily basis sending out inspirational quotes from African-American men and women as relates to civil rights,” Thomas said.

In addition an “African-American Read-In” is planned later this month via Zoom.

Thomas said students and other speakers from outside of the campus are submitting videos of themselves reading aloud literature written by African- American authors.

“I think that's important and COVID did restrict some of the availability of things that we were trying to do and commit to do for this month,” Thomas said. “It’s something that we're involving a lot of our students here on campus to be a part of.

“We have some individuals from our campus — Charlotte Brand (an African-American student support specialist in the Department of Diversity and Access Scholarships) and others who work in a position to support African-American students — and it's something that we actually did last year. It was a huge success,” Thomas said of the read-in event, done in conjunction with the Cleveland State library “to actually showcase literature that had been written by African-Americans.”

Thomas was also heavily involved in organizing the inaugural Dream Weekend 2020 event, which was held Jan. 18-20 in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The weekend of community events culminated that Monday morning with a march through Cleveland.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Dream Weekend 2021 centered around the march. Socially distanced and donning face masks, the marchers drew on King’s message of peacefully protesting as a means of fighting hate and bigotry with love and kindness.

Thomas said with safety guidelines in place, there was concern that participation this year would be low; however, the turnout exceeded expectations.

“We know there was every excuse to cancel, but there was also every reason to stay with it,” Thomas said of the march. He added Cleveland State President Dr. Bill Seymour supported going forward with the event.

“These types of conversations and these types of causes, they're never going to be done at the most convenient moment … so we made sure that we practiced social distancing … and the turnout for this year was amazing.”

Among the community partners supporting this year’s event were the Cleveland/Bradley County NAACP, The 100 Black Men of Bradley County, Lee University “as well as other community officials really came together. They made it very nice and made it special,” Thomas said.

The event also included a pre-recorded memorial service that was aired the weekend leading up to the march.

“I really thought that regardless of the crisis and regardless of the challenges that the city of Cleveland had this summer … I really saw the hope — I saw the grace of what the city is moving toward by individuals, rising past their differences, rising past what they know or what they didn't know, to come together for one single cause,” Thomas said.

“I know we have work that we need to do work and that needs to be done, but to me, it was encouraging to me. I was not necessarily discouraged by the resistance because … you have to start somewhere. And for many individuals it's a learning process. It's an education process.”

Thomas added “change is good, so I just thought that was the beginning of something amazing and something awesome.” He added he has firm personal beliefs, and respects that others do as well — and their beliefs may not always be the same.

“I'm committed to engaging anyone who wants to have a conversation with me … it has to start somewhere,” he said. “I think we do ourselves an injustice by staying silent [about issues that divide people].”

Thomas said one of his favorite historical heroes is Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who became a prominent activist, author and public speaker. He became a leader in the abolitionist movement, which sought to end the practice of slavery, before and during the Civil War.

Douglass’ activism also included suffrage: in 1866 Douglass, along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, founded the American Equal Rights Association, an organization that demanded universal suffrage.

Thomas said one of his favorite books is a biography of Douglass.

“If you really study his life, he would tell individuals that agitation is sometimes necessary for change,” he said, adding hard conversations — like ones on race relations — can agitate people.

However, just because a conversation is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth having.

“We’re growing. We're moving.  We know more than what we knew last year; we know more than what we knew 10 years ago, 20, 30 years ago,” Thomas said. “But we do ourselves a disservice if we sit on the knowledge and don't take the responsibility that knowledge gives us — knowledge always brings a responsibility to it to act.

“And as we're learning, and as we're growing, we have a requirement that we had to act on … and I think that's just what you're seeing taking place across the country,” he added. “I think that's what you're seeing — that's what took place this past summer [in Cleveland].”

Thomas grew up in the Chattanooga and North Georgia area, and still lives in Chattanooga, but he has long enjoyed visiting Cleveland for the live musical performances available here.

“The music scene — that's one of the reasons I'm looking for us congregating more  after we get through COVID,” he said. “I would love to see music and gospel concerts [again].”

Thomas added  “in order for us to become more perfect union as a country, we’ve got to make sure we don't repeat our past.

“And sometimes there can be patterns that were presented in our past that to our eyes may be hidden, but it could disenfranchise someone else, he added.

Thomas said when people talk about black history, “it's about American history — there's no way you can have a country of the United States of America without African-Americans — so their history is American history.”

He added the reason it's important to designate a Black History Month is “because oftentimes when it's through various means, certain attributes of the African-American experience may not have been presented to a lot of individuals.”

Black History Month “is a time where we can kind of reflect” that African-Americans’ achievements and American history “is not based upon somebody just doing something that happens to be in America.

“No, these individuals did this as a result [of being African-American, and] this is what has made America what it is in a good way,” he said.


Partners & Initiatives

  • Cleveland Bradley Business Incubator
  • America's SBDC Tennesseey
  • Your Skills. Your Future.
  • OneSource
  • Cleveland State Sustainability Initiative
  • TBR The College System of Tennessee
  • TN eCampus
  • Tennessee Transfer Pathway