Neighbor to Neighbor: Jamaica library honors African-American actor

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So much has happened in Queens since the beginning of 2004 that catching up on the important topics of the past, present and future must spread beyond monthly barriers.

Each year, although Black History Month is officially recognized as being February, that topic is, of course, prominently featured also in January by honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a federal holiday. In fact, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp honoring him on Jan. 13, 1979.

This year, two great organizations, the U.S. Postal Service (specifically, the Jamaica Postal Advisory Council) and the Queens Borough Public Library (Jamaica branch), celebrated Black History Month together on Feb. 26. The event, held in the library’s auditorium, featured honoree the Rev. Darius Thomas of the Allen A.M.E. Youth Shekinah Chapel who paid tribute to African-American singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson. Thomas was quite impressive.

Robeson was multi-talented and is well-remembered by those of us old enough to have seen him act, heard him sing and followed his athletic and activist careers at the very time they were taking place. He was a gifted scholar and lawyer, the son of a college graduate/runaway slave and a Quaker mother who worked for the abolition of slavery.

Robeson was an advocate for equal rights and peace among nations. He retired in poor health in 1963 and died in 1976 at the age of 77.

On Feb. 26 the audience paid rapt attention as he “came back to life” through Thomas’ performance. After introducing himself to more effectively give us an insight into the varied talents of Robeson, Thomas temporarily assumed his name, burst into song and carried us through “a diary” of events in the lifetime of our honoree.

He impressed us not only with Robeson’s accomplishments but also with his own. He is a very charismatic young man and our communities of southeast Queens are as fortunate to have him teaching the youth of Shekinah Chapel as we were to have him as one of our keynote speakers.

His co-keynote speaker, the Rev. Paul Leacock, who also is from the Allen A.M.E. Church Cathedral, was an interesting speaker who added to our enjoyment but graciously allowed the vocal spotlight to remain on Pastor Thomas.

Others important to the program that day were Earnestine Wyatt, who gave the invocation; the audience, who said the Pledge of Allegiance; Valerie Kilmartin, director, ESD, Queens Public Library, and Jeanne Bouie, coordinator, USPS, who gave welcoming speeches; and James Burns, president of the Cambria Heights Civic Association and senior member of the Postal Advisory Council as well as Jamaica postmaster.

The Allen Christian School choir sang a beautiful rendition of “Old Man River,” and Lily Jung Burton spoke not only about the stamp unveiling but about the importance of computer education and civil rights for everyone. Burton is the district manager of the U.S. Postal Service, Triboro District.

As the program was coming to a close, we were treated to a viewing of stamps designed by some of the day’s honored guests, the third- and fourth-grade students from the Allen Christian School. They had been invited to design a stamp honoring someone appropriate for Black History Month.

The choices were varied and included the inventor of the water gun. Another event related to current black history in Queens was the very well-attended fund-raiser for City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans).

I say “current black history” because the word is being whispered loud and clear that when Council Speaker Gifford Miller (D-Manhattan), who has already announced to seek the office of mayor, steps down, Comrie is expected to be selected as his replacement to that esteemed position.

We certainly wish him and his family well. They were all there that day — Papa Leroy, Mom Marcia, daughter Leana and friend, and Benjamin who made the supreme sacrifice of his favorite T.V. show to attend.

The fund-raiser was held at Antun’s in Queens Village, where the food is always terrific and where, that day, we enjoyed watching the dancing, especially that of Mom and Pop Comrie and the children, featuring “Rubber Legs” Benjamin! Way to go.

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