At celebration, state leaders discuss R.I. black history

Staff Writer
Thursday, February 9, 2012

As legislators and local community leaders gathered at the State House for the third annual Joint Legislative Black History Month Heritage Celebration, Corey Walker, associate professor and chair of the department of Africana Studies, distilled the spirit of the night to a single question: “Is America possible?”

The event, sponsored by the Rhode Island General Assembly and the Rhode Island Black and Latino Caucus, featured performances by the Rhode Island Gospel Chorale Society and remarks by Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14, state House and Senate leaders and Walker, who spoke about the importance of ensuring the American dream is accessible for people of all races.

After a brief introduction by Rep. Anastasia Williams, D-Providence, Chafee opened the event with a short speech. He traced the history of blacks in Rhode Island from the First Rhode Island Regiment of the Revolutionary War to the naming of President Ruth Simmons as the first black president of an Ivy League university in 2001.

“We have to remember the history because it empowers us to continue to fight, because black history is American history,” said House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, in a speech at the event.

Fox — the state’s first black and openly gay speaker — is one of seven legislators belonging to racial minorities currently serving in the House and Senate.

He cited disease, crime, poverty and lack of educational opportunities as issues more prevalent in non-white communities. “While much work has been done, there remains much work to do,” Fox said.

“While we have our debates and our legitimate differences in point of view, we have worked between the legislative chambers and the executive branch and across party lines to bring about true progress for our state in recent years,” said Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Jamestown and Newport. “I am pleased that (the celebration) has become an annual tradition that both chambers observe together.” 

Providence and Rhode Island are at the vanguard of recognizing black history, Walker told The Herald.

He stressed the importance of reexamining the past in his keynote address. “It was not and is not an option to continue with the myth of the American nation as a fully realized possibility,” he said.

His speech urged the audience to consider black history as a way to live out the founding ideals of the nation.

“Yes,” he said. “America is possible when we look at it through the eyes of those who were deemed less than human.”