2015 Heritage Calendar: Twelve who made a difference

Robert J. Brown
Robert J. Brown Courtesy of Robert J. Brown

The 2015 Heritage Calendar honoring people who contributed to the lives and experiences of African-Americans in North Carolina is now available, along with lesson plans developed by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. These are the people featured in the calendar, which is published by AT&T and available at www.ncheritagecalendar.com.

Businessman and philanthropist helps millions

Robert J. Brown founded B&C Associates, a public relations firm, in 1960. As he was capitalizing on opportunities to grow his business, he realized he had a responsibility to fight for equal opportunities for all African-Americans. He worked with Martin Luther King Jr., helping raise money for the movement and participating in protests. In 1968, Brown took a leave of absence from his company to serve as a special assistant to President Richard Nixon. He returned to B&C Associates in 1973. In 1980, Brown founded B&C International, a business management consulting firm. During his career, Brown enjoyed traveling to South Africa, though he was troubled by the shortage of books and the impact that had on children. He created the South Africa BookSmart Foundation in 1993, dedicated to helping children who had never owned a book or visited a library. Renamed the International BookSmart Foundation, Brown’s creation has shipped more than 5 million books to more than 300 schools and libraries.

He believes classical music is for everyone

William Henry Curry is the first African-American to serve as resident conductor of the N.C. Symphony and is now in his 19th year as artistic director for the Summerfest series and for all summer programs. In addition, he became music director and conductor of the Durham Symphony in 2009. A viola player since childhood, Curry conducted his first performance at age 14 at the suggestion of his music teacher. Today, he is known worldwide, having conducted more than 40 orchestras across the U.S. and in Asia. He is also a composer, placing him in the footsteps of one of his childhood heroes, the legendary Leonard Bernstein. While the gap between classical and other musical genres has widened over the years, Curry believes in the ability of classical to overcome racial differences. “After a period of embracing pride in our African-American culture, how can we not come together and embrace the entire world?” he says. “Through music we create this harmony and embrace all cultures. Mozart is for everyone.”

A nurse who finds joy in helping others

As a child, growing up in Charlotte’s Greenville area in the late 1920s, Thereasea “T.D.” Elder dreamed of being a nurse and helping save lives. Enrolling at Johnson C. Smith University, Elder enlisted in the U.S. Cadet Nursing program, an initiative of the U.S. Public Health Service to alleviate the World War II shortage of trained nurses. The largest and youngest group of uniformed women to serve their country, cadet nurses worked in civilian and military hospitals on the home front and in public health clinics. After the war, she returned to Charlotte, where she became the first African-American public health nurse in Mecklenburg County, serving both African-American and white patients in their homes. Elder officially retired in 1989, after nearly 50 years in nursing. But retirement simply meant not wearing nurses’ attire as she worked to make life better for others. She participated in voter registration drives, and worked with hospice, on teen pregnancy initiatives and with the American Red Cross.

A history teacher who shares life lessons

James E. Ford is driven by the challenges and opportunities he sees as a world history teacher at Garinger High School in Charlotte. In recognition of his ability to help students think beyond the easy answer, Ford was named North Carolina’s Teacher of the Year for 2014. “Understanding the history of African-Americans in this state and being able to contribute just another bullet point to that narrative is an unspeakable honor,” says Ford. It would likely gratify the man Ford credits as the greatest influence on his career: Bill Cosby. “He found so many ways to dedicate his craft to the underlying principle of educating young people,” Ford says. Ford began his career in Rockford, Ill., moving to North Carolina in 2010. He recalls his hometown as “racially polarizing.” “Rockford taught me that through any racial adversity, I may bend, but I am not going to break,” he says. He emphasizes that determination to his students, reminding them that each has a responsibility to leave the world better than he or she found it.

Fairness guided his work as lawyer, judge

George Greene was the first African-American jurist elected in Wake County. He served more than 20 years as a Superior Court and District Court judge, gaining a reputation for tempering justice with mercy and a common-sense approach to punishment. First offenders who appeared in his court often received a stern lecture and a sentence that included some alternative to incarceration, along with community service. “He assured them if they came before him again, things would be different and he would ‘throw the book’ at them,” says his wife, Ruby Greene. “They really didn’t want to hear that lecture again.” Greene’s commitment to fairness and equal opportunity in his courtroom reflected his earlier career as a civil rights attorney in Raleigh. He represented Shaw University and St. Augustine’s College students during the lunch-counter sit-ins in the 1960s, and was often involved in initiatives impacting jobs, housing and recreational opportunities for African-Americans. Greene died in 2013 at age 82.

A life dedicated to leaping economic barriers

Growing up in Henderson during the civil rights movement, Andrea Harris had seen more than her share of inequality. So, after graduating from Bennett College, she became a community organizerand, at age 23, became executive director of a Community Action Agency in Henderson. She was the country’s youngest community agency director, supervising 120 full-time employees and fighting poverty in three rural communities. In 1986, after work in federal and state government, she and two colleagues co-founded the N.C. Institute of Minority Economic Development, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting minority and female businesses. There were then fewer than 30,000 minority businesses in North Carolina; now there are more than 132,000. Harris says the institute’s work is founded on the belief that home- and business-ownership are the two most effective means for building economic assets and opportunities. “We must work towards widely shared prosperity as an economic imperative,” she says.

Broadcasting pioneer put words to movement

John Davis “J.D.” Lewis Jr. was a man of many firsts. A graduate of Morehouse College, Lewis enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1942, one of the first African-Americans to join. After the war, Lewis opened an electronics repair business in Raleigh. In 1948, he came to the attention of Fred Fletcher of the Capitol Broadcasting Co., who had heard of Lewis’ reputation as a play-by-play announcer for Negro League Baseball minor-league teams. Fletcher hired him as the first African-American radio announcer in the state, launching a 20-year career during which Lewis’ show delivered news, interviews and music. Later, he hosted “Teenage Frolics,” the first show of its genre to be hosted by an African-American, paving the way for later programs like “Soul Train.” Lewis also wrote editorials for WRAL. His daughter, Yvonne Lewis Holley, says he made his biggest impact on the civil rights movement with those editorials. “He put the words to the movement,” she says. Lewis died in 2007 at 87.

She taught people to hold their heads up

When Mattie Marshall moved to Charlotte’s Washington Heights in 1976, she was stunned to see something she had never experienced growing up as a sharecropper in the segregated cotton fields of Georgia: young people walking with their heads down. “We had a lot of dignity, respect and pride about life – a lot of love,” she says. “You never walked around with your head down, hopeless or dragging your feet.” Rather than flee from the drugs and violence plaguing the historic neighborhood, she decided to work to revitalize it. With the help of neighbors, Marshall founded the Youth Services Academy in 1992 and embarked on a mission to help everyone develop mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually to their potential in a safe, clean and wholesome neighborhood. Marshall taught children and adults every Saturday how to use technology at Johnson C. Smith University and filled the rest of the week with mentoring, tutoring, educational enrichment and arts activities, such as concerts and dancing. “Education is the passport to any destination,” she says.

His stores help build up their communities

When Eligio Peña came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic in 1970, he brought his love for people and for community. Working at a small convenience store in New York with his uncle, Peña quickly discovered he had a knack for customer service and an entrepreneurial spirit. After several years, Peña and his uncle bought the business. Peña had a vision for a store that would deliver high-quality products and service at a low cost, while also providing jobs for people in the community. That dream led, in 1989, to the creation of the Compare Foods supermarket chain. The chain now operates in six states, coming to North Carolina in 2002. Its stores are primarily located in diverse, multicultural neighborhoods. Managers make a concerted effort to hire bilingual and minority employees. “It’s an American supermarket, with strong international ties,” says Peña. “We try to bring the best foods from all over the world to our customers.” Peña wants his staff to reflect the community for a more enjoyable shopping experience.

He worked to make education an option for all

When Benjamin Sylvester Ruffin was growing up in Durham’s West End, higher education wasn’t an option for most of his peers. But as the first African-American chairman of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, he helped assure it was an option for many who followed him. Ruffin, who died in 2006 at age 64, was a business executive whose leadership impacted education and civil rights. He joined the civil rights movement in the early 1960s while a student at N.C. Central University, working to improve neighborhoods in Durham. In 1977, Ruffin became a special assistant to Gov. Jim Hunt, helping to increase opportunities and employment for African Americans in state government. Ruffin was elected to the Board of Governors in 1991. In 1998, he was elected chairman, quickly becoming known as an inclusive leader who represented all the campuses. “My environment [growing up] was one where I was excluded,” he says. “So when I got the chance, I erred on the side of inclusion.”

Her calling was to journalism and community

The third-generation editor and publisher of The Wilmington Journal, Mary Alice Jervay Thatch is committed to providing a voice for the area’s African-American community. Thatch took the helm of the paper in 1996, following in the footsteps of her father, Thomas C. Jervay Sr., and grandfather, R.S. Jervay, who founded the paper in 1927. During the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, as Wilmington simmered in racial tension, Thatch saw first-hand the impact a committed journalist can have on a community. In what became known as the Wilmington Ten case, 10 community activists were convicted in 1972 of arson and other crimes. In the community unrest that followed, Jervay was outspoken in editorials and stories supporting the activists. Thatch gained national attention when, in 2011, she began organizing the Wilmington Ten Pardons of Innocence Project. The national campaign ultimately led Gov. Beverly Perdue to issue pardons for each of the activists. “A family-owned newspaper is really part of the community,” Thatch says.

He sees teaching as an act of social justice

John Ira Wilson grew up in a segregated North Carolina. It wasn’t until he attended Raleigh’s Broughton High School that he saw an African-American in his class. The turning point in Wilson’s life came in 1966 when he attended a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at N.C. State University. Wilson was shocked by the hatred he saw at a protest organized by the Ku Klux Klan, but he was also heartened by people from different walks of life who attended Dr. King’s speech in support of a common goal. “I picked the side that’s for folks getting along and working together,” recalls Wilson. “Teaching is the epitome of social justice.” A teacher of special-needs children for 23 years, Wilson retired from teaching in 1993 to become the chief lobbyist for the N.C. Association of Educators. He later served as the NCAE’s executive director and as the National Education Association’s executive director. He also left a mark on North Carolina politics by helping manage the campaign for Dan Blue, the first African-American Speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives.