As teenagers came forward to read inspirational messages from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an older man stood at the podium and recited lines, from the poem “Invictus,” that helped him succeed as the first black student in what was then an all-white James Monroe High School.
“Out of the night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul,” quoted Roland Moore. “That’s what got me through four years of high school.”
Moore started at James Monroe in 1962 and was joined the next semester by John Scott, Clarence Robinson and Navonia Nelson. Moore and Nelson were among three groups and two individuals honored as “hidden figures” during Sunday’s 13th annual communitywide celebration of the holiday in King’s honor.
“I want to thank Martin Luther King, who actually planted the seeds of change in our heads,” Moore added.
Many of those who were part of the two-hour program, which included song and dance, quotes and presentations, have participated in each annual event, said Andrew Topp of Epsilon Rho Boule of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity. This year marked the fourth time the fraternity has sponsored the event along with the Partnership for Academic Excellence.
Parents of the seven black girls who integrated Spotsylvania County schools in August 1963 no doubt were encouraged by King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered the day before.
“Our parents were people who did not want to leave things the way they were,” Cassandra Johnson Terrell told the crowd of several hundred people at James Monroe. “Quality education for all children was all that mattered, and in the end, as Dr. King said, the time is always right to do what is right.”
Frank White, whom organizer Xavier Richardson called “the resident historian” of the African–American experience in Stafford County schools, recalled that Stafford was the trailblazer in terms of local integration. The Montague sisters enrolled in all-white Stafford schools in 1961.
In addition to those who made landmark strides in education, the ceremony also honored Gladys West, a King George County mathematician who helped develop GPS. Richardson told the audience that many attending the event for the first time—and didn’t know directions—could thank West for the work she had done in getting them there.
The Rev. Aaron Dobynes told the crowd about John Parker, a World War II veteran who was among black sailors and soldiers who went overseas and “fought for rights that they did not have at home. They served America when America did not serve them.”
Parker reminisced about joining the Navy because he wanted to see the world, then becoming trained as a seaman. But, because blacks often were relegated to jobs stateside, such as working in ammunition depots like he did, the only ship he ever got on was a troop carrier when he was sent to Okinawa.
“That was my experience as a black man in a segregated Navy. Thank God that I’m still here,” Parker said as he left the podium and headed toward his seat. “I might be the oldest man in the house tonight, I don’t know.”
The celebration also included dance selections by the Umbiance Center for the Performing Arts in Stafford, a saxophone solo by Shelton Johnson and rousing hymns by the MLK Day Community Choir. Led by Eric Armstead, the 40-person chorus had audience members clapping in rhythm, standing and swaying with the singers and at least one little girl dancing in the aisle when the group sang “I Just Can’t Stop Praising His Name.”
The ceremony closed with all the participants, as well as any audience members who had ever marched or been incarcerated, standing hand in hand on the stage and singing the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
Earlier in the program, Charlie Frye Jr., a member of the Fredericksburg City Council, indicated there were still some obstacles to overcome. At age 40, he didn’t go through a lot of the struggles for civil rights that some in the audience had, but he was indeed “part of the dream.”
He was able to be an elected representative in a city where his grandparents weren’t allowed to vote because of the color of their skin.
But, Frye pointed out, he’s the only minority on Fredericksburg’s city council, and there are no people of color on the boards of supervisors in nearby King George, Spotsylvania or Stafford counties.
He encouraged more people to get involved, before a community issue becomes a serious problem.
“If you have a seat at the table,” Frye said, “you can work on it before it’s a disaster.”