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Four prominent Wilson leaders were honored Sunday for their service to the city, the county and local residents.
Wilson Fire/Rescue Services Chief Albert Alston, Wilson Police Chief Thomas Hopkins, Wilson County Sheriff Calvin Woodard and Wilson Mayor Carlton Stevens were recognized at a community-wide Black History Month program sponsored by the Men’s Civic Club of Wilson at L.N. Forbes Tabernacle.
“No Easy Walk to Freedom” was the theme of the program, which began with a short documentary film showing images from the civil rights movement, key figures in the struggle, including Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., protests in the streets and at lunch counters and demands for equal rights, schools, jobs and wages.
“We didn’t get here by chance,” said the Rev. Maurice Barnes, who presided over the program.
The Rev. Tuck Taylor-Loveland of West Nash United Methodist Church delivered the invocation.
“There is no easy walk to freedom,” she said.
Wilson County Manager Denise Stinagle said it was a great honor to be part of the program.
“As I look at today’s program and reflect on the leadership, the humbleness, the vision and the passion of today’s speakers and those being recognized, I have great reverence because progress is not just one or two things occurring to one’s life, but a continuous movement of people that work together, listen to each other and share a vision for a better tomorrow,” Stinagle said. “That is what I see here today and that is what I see when I call on these same leaders. All of us in this room share a love for people and a passion for Wilson County and all the people that call Wilson County home.
“The great Nelson Mandela said, ‘The real makers of history are the ordinary men and women of our country. Their participation in every decision about the future is the only guarantee of true democracy and of freedom.’ As we honor Black History Month, I extend a heartfelt appreciation to everyone who works daily to help all men, women and children to participate in the future that is hopeful, that is bright and that is free.”
PAIN AND TRIUMPH
Keynote speaker U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield Jr., D-Wilson, said “black history is a very complicated subject.”
“It is very complex. It is a story of pain. It is a story of triumph and it cannot be adequately described in 30 minutes or 30 hours or 30 days,” Butterfield said. “It is a very complex subject that has spanned now more than 400 years. It started in 1619 and African American history continues to this day. And so having grown up here in Wilson, there is so much that I have lived and experienced here in Wilson.”
Butterfield began in 1865 when some 4 million black people were freed from slavery with the passage of the 13th Amendment banning slavery and involuntary servitude.
“That’s when slavery came to an end,” Butterfield said. “You should know that 3,500 lived in Wilson County, 10,000 in Edgecombe County, 4,000 in Greene County, 4,000 in Nash County, 5,000 in Wayne County, 8,000 in Pitt County. Within 40 miles of where we sit today, there were more than 35,000 slaves who became free on Dec. 6, 1865. They had nothing. They had no money. They had no job. They had no education. The only thing they had was faith in God, faith family, faith in community and faith that somehow, somewhere, this country would empower them to have the same opportunity that everyone else enjoyed.”
Butterfield reminded the attendees that the 14th Amendment granted citizenship to the freed slaves and the 15th Amendment gave the freed people the right to vote.
“It has been 150 years now since the 15th Amendment was added to the Constitution, “ Butterfield said. “It was added in 1870. Now it’s 2020.”
In a century and a half, there have been both advances and setbacks along the way to equal rights.
Butterfield carried attendees through the century touching on battles for voting rights, the effort to have equal educational opportunities and fair representation in elective offices. He cited coordination between the Men’s Civic Club of Wilson and Wilson’s NAACP chapter as catalysts for change in the city.
“There is so much history to Wilson, to the Men’s Civic Club and to east Wilson and I just want all of us to take time from time to time to honor and to learn and to celebrate this history,” Butterfield said. “Hardly a month goes by that I don’t learn something new about African American history here in Wilson.”
EVEN PLAYING FIELD
Wilson City Manager Grant Goings said Thomas Hopkins came into the police department at the lowest rank and worked his way to the top.
“What an impact he has made in this community,” Goings said. “He found his passion. When we find our passion, we tend to find success.”
Goings said Albert Alston came into the fire service along a similar path. When the time came to find a new chief, Alson was the youngest candidate.
“By the time it was all said and done, it wasn’t even close. He rose to the top,” Goings said. “Morale has skyrocketed under his leadership. He has grown as a leader with the opportunity.”
Men’s Civic Club President Lafan Forbes and Vice President Derrick Creech presented plaques to each honoree.
Alston credited Goings for making an even playing field, where a black man could advance right along with white city employees.
“I came into the city at a time when I thought it was hopeless,” Alston said. “He created equality for everybody. I didn’t have to do any tricks. I didn’t have to jump through any hoops. I didn’t have to do anything other than to allow God to open the door for me.”
Three of the men, Alston, Hopkins and Woodard, graduated from Beddingfield High School, and each shook the hands of the school’s former principal, Randolph Sessoms, a parliamentarian for the Men’s Civic Club.
“I remember talking to Thomas Hopkins in school one time and he said he wanted to be police chief and I said ‘OK, I want to be the sheriff,’” Woodard recalled.
Alson said there is “a lot of weight that comes with the name chief and sheriff.”
“There are times that I can’t share information with anyone because it’s classified information, but these two brothers I can always go to and they always have my back,” Alston said of Woodard and Hopkins.
Stevens, who was elected in November, said he was “overwhelmed and excited” over the program.
“I just know that our city has come so far,” Stevens said. “I know we have further to go. It is just a milestone of where we are now and I am excited to be a part of it. Everyone here has an opportunity to do whatever they want to do however they want to do it. We just have to stick together and stay together as we do it.”