(February 3, 2022) A New Bern nonprofit is working to bring the city’s rich African American history of music, art and storytelling out of the past and into the everyday experience of local residents.
Since 2018, the African American Heritage & Culture Center has served as an education and advocacy organization presenting the historic impact and progression of African Americans through programs, exhibits, and performances.
The AAHC mission is "to actively present the historic impact and progression of African American heritage and culture in our region.” Carrie Gallagher, AAHC executive director, explained that the organization began four years ago when a small group of community leaders met at New Bern Town Hall to discuss bringing the history and heritage of African Americans into the mainstream.
Gallagher, who has previous experience in nonprofit development, was asked to join AAHC in the spring of 2018. “I moved here in 2015 and so I was learning myself what the community’s heritage was, why I’m seeing the things I see and what ideas that had been percolating among others I met needed to move forward. This group just had a really strong backbone,' recalled Gallagher.
The group’s resolve led to the formation of the AAHC 501(c)3 nonprofit in January 2019, The group officially launched with that year’s Juneteenth celebration.
“There was a real heartfelt significance to this,” Gallagher said. “The leadership decided it was going to have community forums and also address the issue of musical heritage in the community and how it could be integrated into those forums.”
Since that time, AAHC has developed a website, and helped sponsor numerous arts and cultural events and projects throughout the city.
New Bern artist Edward Lee Hood's Queen/Pollock Streets mural is an historical look at the Five Points area.
AAHC helped underwrite the work of local artist Lee Hood, whose mural depicting 1930s era Queen and Pollock streets can be seen on the side of the New Bern Mexican Bakery. In 2019 AAHC sponsored Hood’s exhibit in Gallery 919 at the former New Bern Arts and Wellness Center. His images currently appear throughout the AAHC website.
AAHC has also worked with artist and New Bern native Gerry King, who in 2014 published “The Paper Route,” a book of illustrations depicting his memories of his hometown.
Moving forward despite COVID-19
Gallagher said AAHC’s last event was in March 2020 when they hosted a program by Leesa Jones, director and co-founder of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum, at St. Peter’s AME Zion Church. “It was a great moment but it was really a stark stop because of COVID as far as being able to do anything from that time forward," she commented. "We’ve worked internally on making sure that our structure is sustainable and identifying how we accomplish our mission through events and activities."
AAHC has also launched its Oral History Library, preserving the stories of local individuals that may be lost with their passing. Gallagher said the project's goal is to capture the stories of African American individuals from the region who had a significant impact either in their family or within the community or state. She said the interviews will be made available online through the AAHC website.
“In March we will begin our interviews. We’re working with our partners The New Bern Historical Society, Craven Community College and the city who have video or audio recordings with individual interviews,” Gallagher said. “Those will be part of the library and it will be on an open platform where anybody will be able to go in and get to the interview and to the original source.” As an example of the kind of work AAHC would like to feature in its Oral History Library, Gallagher mentioned interviews the City of New Bern conducted several years ago with former Craven County Commissioner Johnnie Sampson and his wife (Ethyl).
“It was great to have the city give us insight into that. It was probably one of the last non-government forums where the community had an option of seeing and hearing their story," Gallagher said. “That’s a good example of our concern for stories that need to be told and losing individuals in the community.”
Gallagher said AAHC is planning “month to month” due to the uncertainty of the pandemic.
“What we’re more than happy about right now is there are more and more organizations that are not just looking into and celebrating the heritage that we all share in this region during Black History Month but it actually starts popping up throughout the year, whether it’s in schools or plays that are being performed,” Gallagher said.
AAHC is currently planning for the 2022 Juneteenth celebration on June 19. The organization is also partnering with the New Bern Civic Theatre on its “Sankofa” event, and is supporting Juneteenth events at Tryon Palace and local churches. “We may not have a physical event depending on restrictions, if we can we will. But we’re strongly partnering with the New Bern Juneteenth Committee for the celebration that weekend,” she commented.
Gallagher said AAHC also hopes to open a physical location in 2022.
“If we had a physical location for meetings we’d be more likely to be inviting others in to join us," she said. "We could also offer the space we have for events for other nonprofit organizations.”
Leadership includes artists, educators and poets
AAHC leadership includes a cross-section of organization leaders, elected officials, religious leaders, writers, long-time New Bern residents, educators, musicians, poets and artists.
During its recent meeting of the Board of Directors, the AAHC leadership elected its 2022 Officers.
2022 Officers: President – Carol Bonner Becton, Vice-President – Mike Williams, Secretary – Dre’ Nix and Treasurer – Jim Copland.
2022 Board of Directors: (Re-Elected) Carol Bonner Becton and Rick Fisher join Brenda Carter George, Tahira Coble Copland and Joy Harsen who are directors on the board.
AAHC Board of Advisors: Jacqueline B. Atkinson, Sabrina Bengel, Mark Best, Valerie Taylor-Best, Maria Cho, D’Aja Fulmore, Lynne Harakel, Jameesha Harris, Edward Hood, Gerry King, Nelson McDaniel, Mickey Miller, George Oliver, Larry Rosenstrauch, Jaki Shelton Green, Reverend Garry Slade, Timothy Thompson and Ben Watford.
(1.3.2022 Todd Wetherington – New Bern Sun Journal)