It was a Saturday afternoon near the Renton waterfront, and many gathered to celebrate not just Black history, but Black culture and community.
Presented by the Renton-King County Alliance For Justice, the 2023 Black History Month: Unity and Perseverance Open Forum Discussion was filled with local speakers, performers, artists, students, law enforcement and local residents seeking to celebrate and educate.
Hosted by artist Charles Conner, the event began with the Black National Anthem, led by Renton Inclusion and Equity Consultant Benita Horn and an invocation by Commission on African-American Affairs (CAAA) commissioner Joseph Todd, who both spoke later on during the event.
The forum began with Jeffrey L. Cheatham II, a local children’s author and an advocate for self-publishing with Seattle Urban Book Expo. Cheatham, whose books include “What Happened When Charlie Met Claire?” and “Hi Blue Sky”, spoke about the importance of investing in the words of Black authors, and not just sharing a book cover on social media.
“I want the words of our community to be around for years, that doesn’t happen by taking a picture or a selfie with the book,” Cheatham said.
Josias Jean-Pierre was another author who spoke at the forum. Jean-Pierre, a financial writer and a former BECU consultant, spoke about financial literacy in the Black community and has written the books “The Power of Your Words” and “Our Cry For Justice”, the latter of which he read an excerpt from to the crowd.
LaNiqua Bell of the Museum of Flight gave a presentation on the various aero and space programs offered to middle school students by the Museum of Flight, including programs for girls like Amelia’s Aero Club, You Glo Girl and Lashes N’ Lab Coates.
Bell explained that these are also STEM programs, with Lashes N’ Lab Coates being a special event where girls can learn the chemistry that goes into making nail polish or the engineering behind a blow dryer.
“It shows girls that science is everywhere,” Bell said.
The forum didn’t just include adult speakers, but student performers as well. Twin brothers Blaise and Channing Gistarb, 9, of Sartori Elementary School in Renton, recited the poem “Hey, Black Child” by Useni Eugene Perkins, and 12-year-old Spotlight Dance student Elleanna Smith put on a beautiful dance performance.
Art was also a small focus of the forum, where Seattle painter Rodney King shared his perspective on art.
“My stuff is heavily influenced by documentaries I’ve watched, music I listen to,” said King.
One of the backdrops of the forum was King’s painting depicting Craig Hodges, Colin Kaepernick, Tommie Smith and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, which he referred to as “the history of protest through sports.”
One of the most profound parts of the forum was when Horn and John Houston, two Renton leaders who created the “Virtual Tour of Renton African-American Historical Sites,” spoke. Long-time Rentonites, the two talked about the city’s rich Black history, from the Hilltop area that was settled by Black families to the Greenwood Cemetery which holds Jimi Hendrix’s memorial to the Houston homestead in the Highlands, where John Houston’s family thrived as pig and livestock farmers until the late 1960s when they were forced off their land by the school district.
“Renton School District took the land after two houses were burned and a bomb went off in the front yard,” said Houston, who has shared his story before, most recently at the January Renton School Board meeting earlier this year. Houston’s family’s property was taken in order to build a new school under eminent domain, which would allow the dispossession of private property for public use under special circumstances, with financial compensation. A school was never built on the land, but it was eventually sold to developers.
“When we look at institutional racism, this is why,” said Horn.
Towards the end of the forum was an open discussion with Sgt. Corey Jacobs and Sgt. Clarence Tolliver, Officer Micaela Castain and Officer Joe Wisniewski of the Renton Police Department. The officers answered questions that related to mental well-being, being part of the community and what motivates their work, among others.
“It wasn’t until recently that mental health was taken seriously,” said Sgt. Jacobs.
As the forum continued, more speakers talked about community resources, politics and legislation, like Dominique Davis of the non-profit Community Passageways, CAAA commissioner Todd and E3 Engage Educate and Empower president Clarence Gunn.
“We have a system in place that doesn’t educate our children but gets them into a prison system,” said Todd, who spoke extensively on the need to protest but to also talk to legislators about policy.
“Protest plus policy equals power,” said Gunn.