As Black History Month begins in 2023, people who live in the Dunbar community say they’ve come a long way, but there’s more to do.
Keoshia Brown, a science teacher at Dunbar High School, has a message for Black parents and anyone else who wants to listen.
“We are Black history, I am Black history, and it is our responsibility to make sure we remember it and we discuss it and talk about it and teach our children,” Brown said. “You don’t send your Black child to school to learn about Black history. Wake up.”
Marian Smallwood Jackson believes that to understand the present state of the Black community, you have to talk to those who lived Black history themselves.
“I was born in 1948, and I remember it so well, and during that time we didn’t have any paved streets—it was all dirt road,” Jackson said.
Jackson grew up in Dunbar and used to shop in the stores that lined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard drive in the 50s, long before it even bore that name.
“Growing up, that was my store,” Jackson said. “But when I was younger, that was Mom and Melvin’s store. They always carried me there because they had the fine stuff. I remember so well. And I can see them right now in the back there, trying on those beautiful dresses.”
People like Charles Barnes, who grew up watching his father patrol the streets of Dunbar in the 60s and now chairs the Lee County Black History Society, feel it’s their mission is to save and preserve places like the ones Jackson remembers.
“It was the first school building that was government-funded to educate Black kids in Lee County, but it actually served the three surrounding counties,” Barnes said.
Neighbors so engrained in Dunbar’s past and its present can point out what’s changed for better and for worse.
“We didn’t have Black politicians; now we have three Black politicians sitting on city council,” Barnes said.
“In my time, you didn’t hear no shooting and carrying on and people hating each other and trying to bring harm; you could leave your screen doors open at that time, ’cause we had screen doors back in the old days,” Jackson said. “Everybody knew each other, and we loved each other, but now, oh my God.”
What’s next? What needs to change going forward? Keoshia Brown has an idea.
“If you don’t have the necessities, if you don’t have shelter, if you don’t have food, if you don’t have health insurance, you don’t have transportation, you can’t do anything,” Brown said. “You can’t really expect much, so until we fix that first, we really don’t have much of a foundation to build on.”
The people of Dunbar believe it’s going to take the lessons of the past and the people of the present to lay that foundation for the future.
“We can see this community moving up: There’s a project in this park that we are behind as far as a Black cultural center,” Barnes said. “We want to expand what we’re teaching and what we’re doing.”
“My parents always say, ‘Keoshia, you can’t save ’em all,’” Brown said. “‘If you save one, then you’ve done your job.’ But I’m like, ‘One is not good enough; one is not good enough. I wanna save all of them.’”