Boys & Girls H.S. Administrators Design a Day “Most Awesome,” Fit for a King …
Text: Bernice Elizabeth Green. Photos, this page: Dr. Olivia Cousin.
1,000 Children, Volunteers participate in day-long community service activities and mighty walk for Nelson Mandela
On July 18, people around the world celebrated the life, spirit and principles of Nelson Mandela. They celebrated his contributions to peace, to freedom and his unrelenting lifelong battle against apartheid. The day was marked with acts of goodwill in the form of community service community service projects.
And so it was, locally, here in Brooklyn at Boys & Girls H.S., 1700 Fulton Street,
the school Mandela visited in 1990 on his first stop in the United States after spending 27 years in a South African prison for fighting apartheid.
Principal Bernard Gassaway started making plans in celebration of the 96th anniversary of the late leader’s birthday many weeks earlier – in the midst of commencement activities, exams, and the day-to-day that defines the often-times rigorous world of master administrators. The series of planning sessions with a remarkable team of community leaders and young people had fine results; it was a day fit for a king.
And what a day it was. In Mr. Mandela’s honor, the school’s Athletic Field was renamed; a tree planted; ancestral heroes who followed the “great lion’s” example remembered; numerous community service projects fulfilled; and relationships built or rebuilt.
Mr. Gassaway, with Stan Kinard, manager of Boys & Girls H.S.’s Care Center, was indeed the architect of the monumental project which included visits by South African dignitaries and hundreds of schoolchildren, and the appearance of the Honorable David Dinkins, former Mayor of New York City. Implementers Wayne Devonish of 500 Men Making a Difference and Stephanie Finerman from Councilman Robert Cornegy’s office, covered all details. That morning, Gassaway was involved in the minute but important devil-in-the-details items: editing and printing the schedule of activities, making calls, finalizing the event schedule, assuring the concerned that young people would play a major role in every aspect of the event. One future leader, student Calvin Alex Brown, Jr., figured very prominently in the hosting duties for the entire day, and was Gassaway’s constant right arm. PTA leaders Stacey Carter and Caster Hall led the parents’ brigade of volunteers.
The schedule went without a hitch, kicking off with the 10a registration when vendors, dozens of volunteers from various agencies including, DOE, New York City Parks & Recreation, The Green School Alliance, the New York Restoration Project, and so many others. Prior to the formal programs, the coordinators Gassaway, Kinard and Brown managed numerous media, city partnering agencies and scores of volunteers ages 12 to adult, involved in service projects around the school as well as guiding fitness activities with instructors for young people 8 – 11.
They also fielded media interviews, and generously posed for still shots with queues of requesters from the South African Summer Citrus Fruit Company that donated dozens of oranges throughout the day to a number of summer youth campers from Cyber Camp, Madiba Prep and Medgar Evers College, among many others.
At noon, a planting and dedication of the Mandela Tree, kicked off with a libation by Mr. Kinard, in which he called the names of several community activists (see sidebar story), whose anti-apartheid work in early years helped lay the groundwork for the day’s event.
Gugulethu Gingqu and Lebogang Mokwena of the South African Consulate General were a great, uplifting force in co-hosting this important tree-planting activity with Mr. Gassaway, and Tabari Zaid Bomani, principal of the new Nelson Mandela School for Social Justice (which will co-locate in Boys & Girls H.S.), come this fall.
A host of leaders and Bedford Stuyvesant residents, including Ms. Tremaine Wright, President, Community Board 3, gathered around the tree, donated by the NYRP and handled by volunteers and Boys & Girls H.S. staff. Many speakers and observers, picking up shovels to dig earth around the ground of the tree’s new home, alluded to the symbolic significance of the tree dedicated to the memory of Mandela and its presence on the east side of the school at Utica Ave., just in view of the athletic field on the school’s south side.
Shortly afterwards, as hundreds of participants prepared for the Peace Walk, three NYRP workers and Devonish (who is also the acting executive director of Magnolia Tree Earth Center of Bedford-Stuyvesant) joined Maria Garcia of the NYC Department of Health in a private informal tree-planting ceremony of closure with Garcia, noting that the tree “needs watering every day. It has to stay alive”. She and Devonish spoke of supporting the school in sustaining the life of the Mandela Tree, extending their community-service contributions in the name of Nelson Mandela beyond the one day.
In addition to the tree-planting community service activities, perhaps rivaling all that took place across the city, the simple act of painting the iron fence on Fulton Street outside the school was a moment of grace. Middle School students and their guides did their task just feet from artist Ernie Crichlow’s landmark 25-panel 1976 mural, Untitled attached to the north wall of the school. There also was the cleaning up of parts of Fulton Park across the street for “The High,” the landscaping the school’s garden area, and applying pigment to a likeness of Mandela on the school’s exterior northwestern wall facing Schenectady Avenue. The approximately 40ft-high mural by Brooklyn-based Haitian artist/portraitist Kenny Altidor is a work in progress and features the South African leader with President Obama. The mural with the leaders’ smiling visages was a very comely backdrop for photos throughout the day.
At 1:30pm, the 67-minute Peace Walk began under the hot sun on the athletic field led by a superb Black Bold Marching Band with Gugulethu Gingqi and Ms. Mokwena stepping briskly. Throughout the “journey” the principal and Kinard were joined by community leaders the Reverend Herbert Daughtry, Albert Vann, NY State Assemblywoman Annette Robinson and others who were instrumental in hosting Nelson Mandela’s visit to the school in 1990, just four months after his release from a South African prison – and his first time in the United States.
Around 2pm, former-Mayor David Dinkins was the first internationally known dignitary to arrive at the Field Gate entrance just as the last of mini-replicas of the six-colored Republic of South African national flag were handed out to marching children. Those near the entrance, including The Rev. Daughtry, The Rev. Cheryl Anthony, EMS legend Rocky Robinson, Assemblywoman Annette, former NYC 36th district Councilman Al with current 36th-district Councilman Cornegy, SUNY educator Dr. Linda Patterson, publisher David Greaves and Violet Francis, grandmother of Marching Band members Tefari Alves, 13, and Ngozi Alves, 9, and dozens more, greeted Dinkins with a hero’s welcome, hugs, kisses, smiles and love.
He joined the march around the field in a Manx-like dune-buggy looking like the major general that he is.
It was a day of peace, health and wellness – the theme of the event – like no other, on the outdoor stage, gave one amazing performance of a melodic, rhythmic and healing song-poem he composed dedicated to Mandela. Following
that, the Reverend Daughtry’s presence alone on stage framed by azure skies was a monument to the moment. Some in the audience may have recalled that Daughtry was part of the activist group that greeted Mandela when he arrived in
the U.S., and was part of formerMayor Dinkins’ delegation to South Africa that met with Mandela in 1991.
And this day – July 18, 2014 – the Anniversary of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s 96th Birthday – had only just begun.
The ritual of libation – pouring of a liquid as an offering to a spirit in memory of those who have transitioned — honors the ancestral return of the soul to the home. And that rite had much meaning on Nelson Mandela Day, July 18, during the planting of a tree at Boys & Girls H.S. in honor of the great world leader. Stanley Kinard, administrator of the
school’s Care Center, coordinated a brief service at the planting of the tree. In addition to Madiba, Kinard called out
the names of ancestral giants who supported Mr. Mandela’s struggle for freedom throughout their lifetimes.
They included Frank Mickens, former principal of Boys & Girls H.S., scholar Elombe-Brath, culture activistMzeeMoyo, political consultant Bill Lynch and education activists Sonny Carson and JituWeusi.
S.A. Leaders Join Bed-Stuy Community to Honor Madiba at New Field Dedication
Gerard D. Miller, Jr.
The culmination of the day’s festivities was the dedication and renaming of the new outdoor space as Nelson Mandela Field.
The most honored guests at this ceremony were former Mayor David Dinkins, Mr. George Monyemangene and Ms. Baleka Mbete. Mr. Monyemangene is the South African Consul General in New York, and Ms. Mbete is the Speaker of the South African National Assembly and the Nation Chairperson of the African National Congress (ANC).
Mayor Dinkins mentioned that when Mandela’s plane was delayed and his New York visit was running behind schedule, someone recommended skipping Boys & Girls High and Bedford-Stuyvesant and continuing to the next space, but Mandela and the organizers refused. They were rewarded with a crowd of thousands waiting for a chance to see and hear from Nelson Mandela.
Dinkins tearfully spoke of the regular messages he would send to Mandela on his birthday, which is 10 days after the former mayor’s, saying that, “When you’re 110, I’ll be 100”.
On December 5, 2013, Mandela – the first President of South African elected in a fully democratic election – died at age 95. July 18 also marked the first occasion of the celebration of the leader’s birthday without his presence.
“I won’t be able to send that message anymore,” Dinkins told the crowd.
Dinkins finished his remarks by saying, “We adults owe it to our children to have the opportunity to achieve their potential”.
Ms. Mbete spoke about the loss to the ANC and to the world when Madiba passed away, saying, “If we’d have known it would turn out this way, we would have asked for him to stick around just a little longer. But so many times Madiba gave us just another time to realize that he was only human”.
She brought to mind the day he stepped down as President of the ANC, explaining that there was more work to be done in the streets among the people and he couldn’t spend all of his time running meetings.
“Looking at you, you could easily have been my cousin, my uncle, my father. Humanity continues to pose problems even to our children: poverty, hunger, war, diseases. So many of the socioeconomic problems we face are avoidable.”
Taking the last word, she called on those gathered to commit to honoring Nelson Mandela’s legacy by standing against the inequities we see around us.
The day also was filled by remarks from Boys & Girls Principal Bernard Gassaway, Rev. Herbert D. Daughtry, Assemblywoman Annette Robinson, Senator Velmanette Montgomery, DOE’s Deputy Chancellor of Operations Kathleen Grimm and 36th District Council member Robert E. Cornegy, among others.
All gave touching remarks about Nelson Mandela’s impact on their lives and work, with Reverend Daughtry recalling (with pride) that everyone in his family went to jail in opposition to South African apartheid, and Senator Montgomery recounting how then-Assemblyman (Al) Vann chartered a bus for the elected officials in Albany to get into the city to welcome Mandela on his visit in 1990.