By Isaac Welch

On Monday, February 26, 2024, the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA) recognized activist and community organizer Charles “Chuck” Hicks with the Outstanding Leadership Award during their annual Black History Month Celebration. Held in the Molly Smith Study at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theatre, this iteration of the yearly event unfolded through the words of acclaimed speakers, was embodied in celebration by dance and song, and attended by Southwest residents and those across other wards and the metropolitan area. At this standing-room-only event, the gathering of generations, both elder and newer, brought sentiments that honored the accomplishments of those who laid the groundwork, and encouraged those whose future lies ahead. 

The evening opened with the harmonies of vocalist Cecily and violinist Melanie E. Bates, whose performance of James Weldon Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing invited attendees to join and fill the Mead Center’s archways with a polyphony of voices. The song’s conclusion gave way to opening remarks from SWNA President Donna Purchase and Hana S. Sharif, artistic director of Arena Stage. Maintaining the progression of events, with honor and humor, was emcee Danzell C.H. Bussey, director of Richard Wright PCS Academy. Accompanying Bussey, by popular demand, came the Richard Wright PCS Dancers, who returned to the annual celebration with a pair of composed performances of their own directed by Summer Johnson. The young dancers brought living art to the celebration in motions recalling tradition and inspiring life. 

Emboldening this energy were the words of keynote speaker Carole Mumin, who spoke of the long journey through her career as producer, playwright, and community leader and the legacy she built in DC. Her  extraordinaire creativity brought the plays Where Eagles Fly and Lemonade Stand to the world and also informed her service as a White House aide to Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter. Her achievements as a leader to Black women in entertainment and civil rights reminded everyone that the fight for liberation occurs on many fronts and is won by the courageous. Following in her footsteps, Sharif spoke about the community-centric role of her performance center, which has hosted SWNA meetings and activities for more than 10 years. Sharif previously directed Baltimore Center Stage and the St. Louis Theatre company.

Succeeding presenters spoke about the important contributions of SWNA to the Southwest community. Founded in 1963, SWNA has helped improve the quality of life for residents of the quadrant while maintaining a commitment to preserving its history. SWNA depends fully on the efforts of volunteers, who represent a diverse coalition of residents. Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen praised the evening’s honoree, Charles “Chuck” Hicks, and SWNA for their accomplishments over the years. Next, William Zeisel, chair of SWNA’s History Task Force, briefly described the task force’s mission and goals. 

After another performance by the Richard Wright PCS Dancers, Thelma D. Jones, founder and chair of SWNA’s Black History Task Force Subcommittee and 2023 President Joseph R. Biden Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award, recentered the evening on the need to celebrate Black excellence, specifically through the legacy of Hicks. Hicks’ story begins in Bogalusa, Louisiana, but he has been a longtime resident of the DC area, especially Southwest. His varied legacy includes work as a coordinator for the 1995 Million Man March, president of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees District Council 20, and founder of community organizations Bread for Soul and the DC Black History Celebration Committee. He also sits in the Washington, DC Hall of Fame and is honored as a History Maker in the permanent exhibition of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. 

“I’ve always seen him as an icon in the Black community,” said Alan Gregory, who met Hicks through his work with the DC Chapter of the National Conference of Black Lawyers. “Because of the work I was in, we would always be doing stuff together that was active around DC politics and statehood. He has been an important community voice against injustice and against racism. I’ve appreciated his work and seeing what he’s been able to accomplish in all these years.” 

The award presentation was the highlight of an evening already made memorable by words from impactful community members. Jones read a heartfelt letter of tribute from Joni Eisenberg, WPFW-FM’s on-air host of To Heal DC, with whom Hicks has served as a longtime co-host. This was followed by a special tribute from Frank Smith, executive director of the African American Civil War Museum and a longtime friend of Hicks. The evening concluded with vocalist Cecily’s moving rendition of Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come and with violinist Bates playing the classic We Shall Overcome

Coming in the final days of Black History Month, this celebratory event, followed by a reception in honor of Hicks at Westminster Presbyterian Church and organized by SWNA’s Vyllorya Evans, gave recognition to those who have dedicated their lives to the well-being of Black Americans, honoring and representing equal parts in their history, their accomplishments, and visions for the future. With high spirits, leaders like Chuck Hicks and the organizers of SWNA pursue their mission of creating a better world for all, starting in the nation’s capital. 

Isaac Welch is a 2022 graduate of Howard University with a BS in journalism and a minor in political science. He is a freelance journalist, carpenter, artist, and community organizer in D.C.’s Ward 8.

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