As Auburn High School’s Afro-Cultural Educational Club Vice President Shaun Tolbert concluded an emotional rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” the hundreds in attendance erupted with cheers.
His performance, included in ACE’s fifth annual Black History Month program held on Sunday in the school’s auditorium, aimed to commemorate both the achievements won and hardships faced by current and previous generations of Black Americans.
“There have been peaks, peaks of excitement. But there have been valleys of tragedy and hurt. There’s been pain and there’s been disappointment. And there have even been moments of confusion and uncertainty,” Auburn University Associate Provost and Vice President for Inclusion and Diversity Taffye Benson Clayton said. “And yet, here we are today.”
The event, referred to this year as Elevate, hosted Clayton as the evening’s keynote speaker. Her wide-ranging speech touched on the painful progress made since the days of slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow and segregation, the progress yet to be made, Black achievement and the need to lift up — or elevate — others.
Throughout the roughly hour-long program designed entirely by the students involved with ACE, the realities with which Black Americans live daily were prominent in the skits and songs performed: encounters with police, the loss of a friend and the news no mother wishes to receive.
Yet despite the expressed fears amid the backdrop of a string of recent high-profile deaths of Black people at the hands of law enforcement, the event also captured successes and joys: an increase in postsecondary educational attainment since 2000, the rise of Black entrepreneurship and increased participation in the highest levels of government including Ketanji Brown Jackson, the nation’s first Black female Supreme Court Justice.
According to ACE sponsor Allysa Gentry, a mathematics teacher who took over as sponsor during the 2019-20 school year after beloved history teacher and former sponsor Ruby Thomas passed away after battling breast cancer, preparation for the program began in late October.
Students involved with ACE dedicated much of their free time, coming in “basically every Saturday and Sunday since November” to ensure the program went smoothly.
While she was outwardly proud of the students’ dedication, Gentry hoped the message behind Sunday’s event would not be lost.
“I hope they understand the importance of our community coming together. We all know in Auburn, in general, the city is a predominantly white town [and] school system. Sometimes in that instance, the black community can be small and they can be forgotten,” Gentry said. “No matter what, I just want everyone to know we can come together, we can elevate and do great things when we all come together.”
ACE member Azya Lockhart, who has been active in the organization for three years now, echoed those sentiments.
“I think that after people see this program, we should come together even if it's not a program,” Lockhart said. “We should learn to be brothers and sisters because, in the end, we're going to be brothers and sisters no matter what our race is.”
Lockhart also said that while ACE promotes Black education and Black excellence, anyone can join and that the group’s core messages and values are applicable to everyone regardless of race.
And as Clayton concluded her keynote speech, Elevate’s core message shone through.
“I am making a commitment through this thing, right? A commitment to elevating my mind, to elevating my behavior, to elevating my leadership, my commitment, my contributions, my expectations, my goals, my family, my relationships, my faith, and as a result, to elevate my future,” Clayton said. “Let's all commit to this, and as you do, your elevated commitments will translate into an elevated future. For you, yes, but [also] for those around you and for the broader community.”
Do you like this story? The Plainsman doesn't accept money from tuition or student fees, and we don't charge a subscription fee. But you can donate to support The Plainsman.
Daniel Schmidt, senior in journalism, is the assistant news editor for the Auburn Plainsman.