SURPRISE: Bust of former mayor unveiled at celebration

Published 11:23 am Saturday, February 17, 2024

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NATCHEZ — History was made at the first commemorative anniversary program of the late Daisy C. Newman’s induction into the Natchez Association for the Preservation of African-American Culture.

The event took place Wednesday evening at the NAPAC museum on Main Street.

During Black History Month, former Mayor of Natchez Phillip West thought that he would only be speaking at the event about his friend, Newman. However, the tables were turned by Newman’s sister Dorothy Hills when she surprised West with a bust of himself.

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The bust was made by Mississippi sculptor and minister the Rev. Herman Sutton, whom Hills also presented with a trophy for his work inscribed with “World’s Greatest Sculptor.”

Sutton also presented the NAPAC museum with one of his busts of President Barack Obama. The plate below the bust of West is inscribed with, “Mayor Phillip West, 2004-2008; First Black Mayor of Natchez, MS since Reconstruction.”

Sutton told the story of how he made the sculpture without West knowing.

“Sister Hills thinks a lot of former Mayor West, so highly that she came to me one day and asked me to do something for him. She asked me to take this picture and to make this man here. I said, ‘I can’t do that. We have to make a mold, cast him and then we could make him over and over but it’s going to cost a lot of money.’ And then she said, ‘No, no, you can do it. Then she handed me the picture and walked off. So, I took the picture home.

“I didn’t want to let her down. I made a mold of Bishop Richard Allen,” who built the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1793. “I thought about the scripture, ‘I am the potter, thou art the clay.’ I looked at Richard (while the clay was still wet) and I told him, ‘I’m going to turn you into a Mayor West.’”

The preacher told those attending that God could make us however he wanted to make us, but we all have two eyes, two ears — “though some of us have a basketball head or a football head,” he said. “As I looked at (West’s) picture, it was telling me something. This is a man who is concerned about other folks. He puts other folks before himself. … This is not a ‘me’ guy. This is a ‘we’ guy.”

During his presentation, West was rendered speechless.

Moments before he had talked about Newman and how she had made history.

“I never forgot the sound of Daisy’s voice,” he said. “We came from a very different time in this community, a time of segregation in the ‘60s. A couple of times Daisy asked me to walk her home. At the time I thought it was because she liked me but I later figured out it was because she was afraid to walk by herself. I had to walk past my house to get to her house. On my way back I would be shaking because we had to walk through a white neighborhood. It was not easy being a Black child walking through a white neighborhood. Things could happen to you.”

Born in Natchez to David Newman Sr. and Hattie Bivens, Daisy Newman died on Feb. 10, 2021, at age 74. She was the valedictorian of Sadie V. Thompson High School’s Class of 1965 and went on to study music at Cleveland State University and Oberlin Music Conservatory, Oglebay Opera Institute, Tanglewood Festival, and the Marlboro Music Festival.

She enjoyed a 20-plus year career as an international soprano soloist in opera, oratorio and recital. The also taught music at Cleveland, Ohio, public schools early in her career and spent over 30 years as an administrator of the New York Philharmonic and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In 2003, she was recruited to be the Executive Director of UC Berkley’s Young Musicians Program and in 2013 founded the Young Musicians Choral Orchestra, the only choral youth orchestra in the nation.

Her production of “Porgy and Bess” was nominated for a Tony Award.

“I’d always known she was brilliant and knew she had an amazing voice,” West said. “But I didn’t know many of the things she had done until she was gone. … When Daisy came home for the holidays she and I would always have dinner before she left and we would talk small talk. She never talked about the fact that she had been nominated for a Tony Award. She never talked about performing in the White House … that she had created a choir and orchestra. … She never told me about it. She was very humble.”

West said as a school board member, one of his tasks is making sure students know about Daisy Newman so that they too could excel at what they’re doing.

“Some people excel as entertainers. Some people excel at being smart. But Daisy had both,” he said. “God gave her a gift and she used it. … She represents a lot of people who have come through our community and have excelled in different areas that our children don’t know about.”

The commemoration of Daisy Newman is important, he said, so that Natchez doesn’t forget about her and her legacy.

Not knowing that he would soon have more than just a photo to commemorate his time as Natchez’s first Black mayor since reconstruction, West said, “We know that Robert Woods was the first Black Mayor of Natchez, but we don’t even have a picture of him. We know of his contribution, but there is no photo of him. All we know is what the history books tell us about him.”

Hills said though Newman had to leave Natchez to accomplish the things she did, she was very vocal about coming from Natchez.

“A big orchestra played and she was an instrument herself because she used her chest and head voice and sang over this whole orchestra without a microphone,” Hills said. “When she toured Europe with Lenard Bernstein, singing in the Scandinavian countries, and she was in Norway where they had a midnight sun — six months of daylight and six months of darkness — … when she was singing in Russia … Japan, Argentina, Africa, Mexico, as she saw all of the United States and five continents, she represented Natchez well.”

Hills spoke highly of West and his accomplishments as well, calling him one “who is very deserving, who has paved a path for others to follow,” and who is “very serious about life, about people and has come down through the years making things better for everyone by being the forerunner of the Civil Rights movement.”

“As I go along, if I can help somebody with a word or song, then my living shall not be in vain,” she said.