The Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA) held its annual Black History Month community meeting on Feb. 26 at Arena Stage. This year’s well-attended meeting featured a wonderful lineup of performers and speakers, touching on a variety of topics that highlighted the importance of Black History Month and the numerous contributions of African-American Southwesters in shaping our community into what it is today and will lead it to become in the future. Complementary African art adorned the space, including beautiful Kente and Mud cloths. Mistress of Ceremonies Thelma Jones led off the evening with a moment of silence for Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who was an educator, art collector, philanthropist, and co-founder of Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Over the years several SW students have graduated from Duke Ellington, including Jada Miles, who was active with the SWNA Youth Activities Task Force (YATF) and is now a two-year SWNA Scholarship Program recipient, provided through the SWNA Education and Scholarship Task Force (ESTF).

The program then kicked off with a fantastic performance by the Amidon-Bowen Elementary School Choir under the direction of Ms. Para Perry. The choir of our local elementary students sang a wonderful three-song set focused on the importance of African-American contributions in our nation’s history and received a strong ovation for their performance.

Following the students’ performance was a discussion by John Wennersten and Denise Robbins, authors of Rising Tides: Climate Refugees in the Twenty-First Century, on the increasing impacts of global climate change. They highlighted the importance of recognizing the particular impacts causing migration and the increase in refugees from drought and other natural disasters. Connecting to our area is the importance of planning for sea level rise and enacting policies that recognize and encourage a proactive approach to addressing the linked issues of climate change and climate refugee migration.

Rhonda Hamilton, life-long Southwest resident and current ANC6D commissioner, followed that presentation by giving tribute to one of the leading voices of our neighborhood, Dr. Beryl Rice. Rice served over the years as SWNA president, YATF chairperson, and was a fervent Arena Stage supporter. As a close friend and mentee of Rice, Hamilton highlighted the many important contributions Rice made to Southwest throughout her life. Hamilton also discussed the personal impact that Rice had on shaping her life for the better and seeing her do the same in the lives of many others in the neighborhood.

To end the meeting, Benjamin Sands, one of the first recipients of a scholarship in the early 1970s, performed a set with his brother Lorenzo. The Sands siblings were raised in Southwest and Benjamin was able to pursue his passion for music thanks in part to a scholarship from ESTF. This training subsequently enabled him to perform with a wide variety of acts around the world and make an important location impact as a music educator at Calvin Coolidge Senior High School. The duo performed a few pieces written by Benjamin, and he briefly discussed the importance of his parents and the Southwest community in shaping his life and career.

The SWNA History Task Force (HTF) would like to thank all of the wonderful performers and speakers who made this community meeting a success, and the volunteers from SWNA YATF and ESTF. This meeting also would not have been possible without the efforts of the HTF Black History subcommittee, which put together this lineup and organized the evening.

By: Ryan Pierce

Chair, SWNA History Task Force

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