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BH Celebrates First Ever Black History Month Event


The Berkeley Heights Diversity Council held its first ever Black History Month celebration for the community on Sunday at the Recreation Center. 


Toiya Facey welcomed the crowd that came to meet and mingle with their neighbors and listen to distinguished residents speak from their perspective of the reminders of racism they encountered while raising their families in Berkeley Heights.


Facey, who is part of the leadership of the Berkeley Heights Diversity Council, explained that the council began as a committee five years ago, and through their grass roots effort, they have brought cultural awareness to the community through Diwali, Lunar New Year and Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service events.



"I am proud to say, we have evolved and over time we have partnered with the Berkeley Heights YMCA and the Summit Medical Group," said Facey. "Over the last couple of years, we have pivoted to not only bring cultural events to the community, but to also bring educational opportunities to the community like guest speakers, as well as workshops. -- Our main goal, as the Diversity Council, is to create a welcoming environment for all in Berkeley Heights."


Council President Alvaro Medeiros read a proclamation, signed by Mayor Angie Devanney, in recognition of African Americans past and present in our community, the Mayor and Township Council of the Township of Berkeley Heights proclaim February 2019 to be Black History Month. Also in attendance were Council Vice President Susan Poage, Councilmen Stephen Yellin and Manny Couto, and Police Chief John DiPasquale.


The event was put together quickly through the efforts of an enthusiastic committee [Pam Yoss, former Councilwoman Michelle Greco, Joy Young and Ann Bartholomew]. Facey, along with fellow Diversity Council leader Ayana Joseph presented the committee with gifts of appreciation. She also thanked Stephanie Bakos and Laura Fuhro of the Berkeley Heights Public Library for bringing a display of books honoring Black History Month, which have been displayed all month at the library.


As part of the event, the children enjoyed arts and crafts, trivia, and a slide show of modern day African American heroes. There was also a bake sale to raise money for the Diversity Council to support future events. 


What captivated the audience were the distinguished guests that were invited to share a half century of their history in raising their African American families in Berkeley Heights. Facey introduced these guests: Dr. Jean Marquis, Frank A. Bolden, Esq., Bill Ducksworth and the Brice's -- all long time residents of Berkeley Heights, who were described as active members of the community and "Berkeley Heights gems." 



Dr. Marquis, a 25 year resident of Berkeley Heights, recited a poem by Langston Hughes, “Mother to Son,” to commemorate the event. She chose this poem to relate to their culture, sufferings, hopes and dreams. "All can understand -- [a] better understanding of the reality of being a black person in America," said Dr. Marquis. The poem is a metaphor of the mother climbing the staircase to encourage her son to never give up striving.  She referenced a Black History triumph of the Presidential election of Barack Obama. She said, "We need all our children to understand what America should and can be -- so that we, as the people, can truly make our country great again."


Frank Bolden, Esq., shared his story and highlighted incidents his family encountered as reminders of racism in Berkeley Heights.



"We came here like many of you seeking a piece of the American dream for our family -- we wanted a nice home, good schools, safe wholesome environment for our children to play and grow and enjoy the fruits of our labor," said Bolden. "We were willing to work hard." He said that back in 1972, racial discrimination and other obstacles limited the ability for a black Wall Street attorney and his family to enjoy the same type of homes his colleagues had in the suburbs of New York. 


His family found their dream home in Berkeley Heights. "We were ecstatic until we went to the closing," said Bolden. There was a paragraph in the deed stating the property could not be sold to black people. This was illegal, and the paragraph was striked out. "[This was the] first reminder that things may not be the same for us as everybody else." 


Bolden said his family found the Berkeley Heights community to be warm with friendly people who welcomed them with open arms. However, over the years, his family had continuous reminders they were different. Neighbors erected a fence between the properties. He said, during a third grade teacher conference, the teacher said their son was doing fine, "[but] he won't be going to Harvard or Yale, but he'll get into Rutgers." This shocked Bolden and his wife. "I don't know why it was that way. We didn't understand. We thought it was a colored thing. I wanted to send her a notice of his graduation from Yale," he said with jest. 


He said they found the American dream in Berkeley Heights. "A town where there are a lot of wonderful people. -- [We] supported each other, created treasured memories. For us, there are always reminders that we are black and racism is alive and well, even here in paradise."


He further gave examples of his reminders that racism exists. Despite these reminders of their color, he said they were happy in town. "We had warm friends that treated us as we treated them. Our search [for a new community] failed to identify a better community for us. Main reason, our children didn't want to move. They loved Berkeley Heights."


Racism continued to taint his children's education experience in subtle ways. He pointed out an incident of his child not receiving the United States Presidential Academic Award he deserved and being excluded from an advanced math class. He said, the final straw was when his child was treated so badly when he ran for senior class president at high school -- "we yanked him out of school immediately and had him finish his last semester of his junior year and his senior year of high school in another town." 


He said these few incidents are reminders that racism is always present to let them know they are black. 


What made them stay in Berkeley Heights after 46 years? -- "As a black family, where could we go to find a better environment? The problems we encountered here are not unique in Berkeley Heights, they exist in most communities in our country. Our little reminders were much milder than the indignities other blacks in different towns are suffering," said Bolden. 


Although these examples of racism experienced were painful, Bolden said, "They pale to manageable annoyance when compared to the overwhelming kindness, generosity, support, joy and love provided to us by so many people in the greater Berkeley Heights community for over the last 40 years. For every jab, there were many other acts of warm humanity by dear friends of all hues -- friends who hurt when we hurt, friends who tried to comfort us during difficult times, and were willing to stand up and fight with us and help us deal with ugly problems we encountered." 


Bolden's grandchild is currently moving through the school system, and he said the attitude of the administration has improved tremendously since his children went through the school system. 


"I believe that our leaders today are doing their best to embrace the increasing diversity in our town," he said. -- "Half a century ago, we came here seeking the American dream -- and we did and I hope you will too."  


Photo credits: Natalie Chin and Bobbie Peer


Originally published in TAPinto Berkeley Heights, February 27, 2019

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