Winston-Salem is holding a big birthday party this weekend. It was 100 years ago that the towns of Winston and Salem merged, added a dash and became the city we call home.
A lot of milestone anniversaries have been celebrated in recent years. The Emancipation Proclamation turned 150 in January; Delta Sigma Theta Sorority is 100 this year, joining Kappa Alpha Psi and Omega Psi Phi, which reached that feat two years ago. The NAACP celebrated its centennial four years ago; three years ago, the Urban League followed suit.
A hundred years is certainly nothing to sneeze at. It’s a long time. We all marvel at centenarians because ten decades of life is still very much an anomaly, despite today’s medical advances. But 100 years through the lens of history is but a blip. Even 243 years – the amount of time that has passed since slave Crispus Attucks became the first martyr of the Revolutionary War – is considered recent history when looking at the grand picture of the past.
Looking back at the past 100, 150 or 243 years, it’s hard not to marvel. We’ve come a mighty long way in a very short span. Of course none of it – the progress, the achievements – came easily, but a steely resolve and God’s grace trumped all the rest.
While you are celebrating the city’s centennial, remember to thank your African American ancestors and elders. A hundred years ago, fresh from slavery, they had already built communities of their own, Happy Hill first among them.
Realizing that education would be salvation, if not for them, then for their children, they embraced learning. Slater Industrial Academy (Winston-Salem State University) was already 20 years old when Winston and Salem became one and already churning out the leaders who would break through glass ceilings and break down walls of discrimination. During the first decades of the 20th century, legendary all black high schools – Atkins, Paisley, Carver and Anderson – would be born and produce a crop of educated blacks like none ever seen before.
Segregation had its advantages. A strong, vibrant black business community flourished under the system as black shop and eatery owners, funeral parlors, doctors and lawyers provided just about everything the community needed.
We fought when the cause was just. The mostly black female tobacco workers who stood up to their bosses to demand better working conditions in the 1940s did more to shape this city’s business climate than any CEO or hotshot entrepreneur ever did. Carl Matthews’ 1960s sit-in brought black and white together in a tangible way like never before. The city’s Black Panther Party kept up the fight in the ’70s, taking its missions of social justice and community empowerment to new heights.
We, the blacks of Winston-Salem, have not yet reached the Promised Land, but look where He has brought us from. We should always remember that just 150 years ago, many of our people were enslaved, and about 50 years ago, we were not allowed to sit down for a cup of coffee at a downtown eatery. Let’s be humbled by these facts and reminded that freedom is never free.