BREAKING BARRIERS: Black History Month program honors notable African American women past, present

Published 12:16 pm Tuesday, February 20, 2024

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NATCHEZ — “Bet you didn’t know that,” said Beverly Green, when she spoke of the “Mississippi Madam,” Nellie Jackson being an informant for the FBI.

Nellie Jackson of Natchez was one among many included in a special Black History Month presentation sponsored by the Seeds of Change Resource Foundation.

The Program took place Saturday evening at the Natchez City Auditorium.

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“I learned a lot about these women that I didn’t know,” said Mayor Dan Gibson while attending Saturday’s presentation.

Included with well-known historical figures like Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, the program called “African American Women Who Changed History and Culture” included many notable women who are from or have ties to Natchez.

Among them are:

·      Iesha Sanders, the first and youngest female and first African American to serve as Adams County prosecutor.

·      Caroline Green, the city’s first female and African American woman to lead the Natchez Police Department as its chief and the first female Adams County Sheriff’s deputy.

·      Judge Mary Lee Toles, the first African American woman elected as Justice Court Judge in Adams County and founder of the Natchez Association for the Preservation of African American Culture.

·      Nellie Jackson, who ran a brothel and became a successful businesswoman during the Great Depression.

·      Artemis West, the first African American alderwoman for the City of Natchez, serving out the term of her late husband George F West Sr.

·      Lily Blackman Sanders, the first female Circuit Judge in the State of Mississippi

·      Marie Williams, called “Madam Selika” and heralded as the Queen of Staccato, was an African American soprano singer and the first Black artist to perform in the White House.

·      Lynette West Smith, first African American female golf coach in the Southwest Athletic Conference and daughter of the Natchez golf enthusiast, Henry Eddie West.

·      Louise R. Bruce, one of 855 Black women who served in Europe during WWII in the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. She was honored at the Natchez National Cemetery with a congressional medal by film director James Williams Thrace.

·      Thelma Wallace Williams, who retired from teaching in New York and moved to her grandmother’s home in Natchez, where she started an enrichment program for African American young people headquartered in the Angeletti House.

·      Frederica Todd served as president of Natchez Junior College, where Civil Rights pioneer Anne Moody was one of the school’s most prominent graduates and known best for her memoir, “Coming of Age in Mississippi.”

·      Sadie V. Thompson, born in 1876 and moved to Natchez in 1899 to teach at the Union School, a grand brick building built in 1871 on North Union Street for a public school for African American children. Sadie V. Thompson High School was built in 1954 and named in her honor.

·      Susie Ethel B. West, honored with the naming of Susie B. West Elementary School, was known for her love of the underprivileged and her hatred of illiteracy, which strengthened her attempt to educate and stamp out ignorance among all people of her race with whom she came in contact.

·      Rhetaugh Grace Dumas, American nurse, professor and health administrator and the first Black woman to serve as Dean at the University of Michigan and also served as Deputy Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, becoming the first African American to hold that position.

·      Charlotte Connor King was the first African American registered nurse employed by the International Paper Company and a member of Zion Chapel AME Church.

“Being on the receiving end of so much injustice … so much hate, those who have the greatest excuse not to love others find it in themselves to love the most,” Gibson said.

At least a dozen presenters each read facts about the people who were part of the History of Natchez, Mississippi and the United States as a whole.

“Their hard work and perseverance remind us that anything is possible,” said Rosa Demby near the conclusion of the program. “Black History is American History. It’s critical that take the time to celebrate the contribution of Black Americans. We honor their legacy and we push past the injustices that still happen today.”

Carolyn Myers, Ph.D., the CEO and Founder of Seeds of Change Resource Foundation and organizer of Saturday’s program, also recognized a few notable women in present history as Natchez Women of the Year, including Nia Day, Iesha Sanders, Lily Blackmon Sanders, Caroline Green, JoAnn Rucker, and Lynette West Smith.

Myers said she too was part of that history.

“Breaking barriers is not easy,” she said. “I’ve endured some broken barriers in my lifetime. When I look back I wonder, ‘How in the world did I do that?’ I was the first and the only African American female to walk through the doors of Georgia Pacific in Louisville when it was mandatory that they hire women and worked there for six months with no one but men. They took to me like I was their little sister but each day I had to pray, ‘Lord give me the strength to go to this job’ because I was scared.”

Myers said other barriers she overcame were not so pleasant.

“That summer when I got out of Natchez Junior College I worked at an all-white grocery store as the only Black cashier. (The customers) would not come through my line, but the owner would make them. He’d say, ‘That lane there is open. Take your groceries there.’ They didn’t want me checking their groceries. They would take their money and lay it down rather than put it in my hand. It was a barrier I had to break.”