West Haven News

Posted on: February 22, 2017

Cultural event celebrates West Haven’s black heritage

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PHOTO — West Haven High School seniors Lauren Lewis and Sai Maurice, holding certificates, receive Black Heritage Committee awards for outstanding leadership from, from left, John W. Lewis, executive assistant to Mayor Edward M. O’Brien, Superintendent of Schools Neil C. Cavallaro and Principal Pamela B. Gardner during West Haven’s 21st annual Black Heritage Celebration Wednesday, Feb. 22, at City Hall. The cultural event is presented in honor of Black History Month. (City Photo/Michael P. Walsh)

WEST HAVEN, Feb. 22, 2017 — The city honored the rich legacy of African-Americans and the enduring contributions they have made to the diverse history and vibrant culture of the United States at the 21st Black Heritage Celebration Wednesday, Feb. 22, at City Hall.

During the annual event in observance of Black History Month, the city’s Black Heritage Committee paid tribute to West Haven High School seniors Lauren Lewis and Sai Maurice for outstanding leadership and recognized city police Officer Marcus Tavares and the late West Haven Fire Department firefighter Ransford “Smitty” Smith Jr. as its African-American Citizens of the Year.

On behalf of her husband, who was on the job for more than six years before he died of cancer in December, Christina Smith, choking back tears, accepted a mayoral citation from John W. Lewis, executive assistant to Mayor Edward M. O’Brien, recognizing the late Smith’s “exceptional devotion to the integrity of the City of West Haven and its vibrant African-American community.”

Lewis, the father of Lauren Lewis, represented O’Brien, who was unable to attend.

Reading aloud the citation, John Lewis said Smith’s “leadership and service have safeguarded the residents of the First Fire Taxation District.”

Tavares, who has been on the force in West Haven since retiring from the New Haven Police Department in 2014 after a 20-year career, was also presented with a mayoral citation from Lewis.

“As a member of our city’s finest, you have made inspiring contributions to the life of West Haven, protecting it in every corner, and have enriched the tapestry of our diverse community,” said Lewis, reading aloud the citation.

The one-hour program, held in the Harriet C. North Community Room, featured a rendition of the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” sung by the West Haven High chorus under the direction of Phyllis Silver. The chorus was then accompanied by the near-capacity assembly of dignitaries, family, friends and residents, along with an array of police officers and firefighters, on “Hymn to Freedom,” a 1963 recording by Canadian jazz pianist and composer Oscar Peterson.

The ceremony was led by Bailey Middle School eighth-grader Nora E. Mullins, the mistress of ceremonies, on behalf of her father, Program Chairman Steven R. Mullins, vice chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission, who was also unable to attend. She was assisted by city police Commissioner Deborah Wright.

It included remarks from Superintendent of Schools Neil C. Cavallaro, keynote speaker Anthony Campbell, acting chief of the New Haven Police Department, and committee President Ernestine Jackson.

Committee founder Beulah “Bea” Johnson read aloud the poem “The Voice of a Negro Woman.”

Lauren Lewis, who is deciding where she will pursue her college education in the fall, and Maurice, who plans to study mechanical engineering at Andrews University in Michigan, received a Black Heritage Committee certificate of achievement from West Haven High Principal Pamela B. Gardner, who was joined by John Lewis.

Lauren Lewis, vice president of the high school Class Council, is a member of the National Honor Society and a recipient of the Smith College Book Award. A peer advocate, she is also captain of the soccer and basketball teams.

Maurice, co-leader of the school’s Governance Council, has volunteered as a deacon and pianist at the Brooklawn Seventh-day Adventist Church in Bridgeport.

Campbell, who received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, empowered the pair of student honorees and the many other young attendees to help people and to follow their dreams.

“I encourage you to hold fast to your dreams,” said Campbell, citing the poem “Dreams” by American poet and social activist Langston Hughes.

Campbell, who was motivated by his own dreams, was unsure if they were still achievable after suffering a life-threatening injury that left his future uncertain with New Haven’s finest.

While on duty 11 years ago, Campbell was initially paralyzed on his right side after a convicted felon intentionally struck his vehicle, he said.

But he never doubted himself and his future, Campbell said, and with grit and resolve, he steadily regained his health, fighting his way back to a desk assignment in 22 months and to patrol duty in 30 months.

He eventually rose through the department’s ranks to his current post, all the while keeping his eyes on the prize.

“The future is dependent on what we do now,” Campbell said.

In honor of the monthlong black history celebration, organizers have adorned the walls of City Hall with banners and posters depicting important black leaders and role models worldwide.

The committee has worked since 1996 to promote racial harmony across West Haven, transforming City Hall into an exhibition of African-American art and literature throughout Black History Month to educate residents about black culture.

To view the photo gallery, click on Scenes from the 2017 Black Heritage Celebration.

— MICHAEL P. WALSH, Public Relations Information Coordinator

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