GLOVERSVILLE – Growing up black in Gloversville in the 1930s and 1940s, Audrey Bowman felt all of life’s highs and lows as the wave of civil rights washed over the city.
Her school teachers made her feel loved and accepted, yet the Board of Education rejected her as an educator, saying blacks couldn’t be on the staff. The city whose businesses provided her and her friends with abundant recreational opportunities and real-life experiences dealt her another shock when the head of the local hospital’s nursing program told her, in front of her white friends, she was ineligible for the program, even though she’d been wrapping bandages as a Junior Red Cross volunteer for years.
“She looked at the four of us, then looked me right in the face and said, ‘we don’t take coloreds. You’re going to have to find a Southern school,'” she recalled.
But Bowman, like her message at Sunday’s Black History Month program at the AME Zion Church, did not dwell on rejection. It was a lesson in perseverance through struggles and a challenge to African-Americans to be active in society and take advantage of opportunities that await them, free of racial barriers.
“My grandchildren and my great-grandchildren – I want them to walk on the edge and do anything they want,” she said. “Not because of what I did, but because it’s there and it’s open to them.”
She told the 20 members of the audience that opportunities don’t come out of nowhere, and with the area’s economy, it’s not always easy to find something to love. “But you have to put yourself out there, even though sometimes you’re not going to get the results you want” she said.
“If there’s a job out there and you want it, go for it,” she added. “But make sure you qualify for it, and when you get it, make sure you do it. And even if you don’t like it, stay at it.”
City Councilman-At-Large James Robinson, who announced in his speech he will run for re-election this year, said he was a living testimony of Bowman’s message, crediting her and three others – Geraldine Beekman and Cathy and Jim Brown – with helping him through challenges growing up so he could become the city’s first black councilman.
“They paved my way so now, I could have the opportunity to pave it for generations to come,” he said.
Marion Porterfield, who is Schenectady’s first African-American councilwoman, said people in her position should take pride in the opportunity they have to influence those who will come after her.
“I see myself not only as the first, but also as [someone with] an opportunity to open the door to young people to be a role model – to let young people know what they can achieve and what’s necessary,” she said.
E. Lynn Brown, Gloversville’s first black Board of Education member and the organizer of Sunday’s program, which was sponsored by Fannie Rose Temple No. 1198, said it’s important for African-Americans to not just celebrate their culture, but to take time to educate themselves about it.
She punctuated the program with anecdotes and readings that showed the evolution of her culture’s struggles through generations, and enlisted some members of the AME Zion men’s choir, director Doren Gray Sr., Harold Barksdale and the Rev. Robert Daggs, to sing three traditional, soulful spirituals, which got the audience swaying, clapping and tapping their feet.
She also enlisted Zechariah Brown and Tyrell Robinson-Glass to tell the audience about a dozen influential African-Americans, because recent generations aren’t always being taught specifically about the contribution of such men as musician Louie Armstrong, Arctic explorer Matthew Henson and Garrett Morgan, who invented the gas mask.
“You read it and say, ‘wow, I didn’t know it was a black man who invented the gas mask.’ It wasn’t part of our history,” Brown said. “It was there. It just wasn’t heard.”
The Rev. Diana Fletcher, who became pastor of the AME Zion Church in September, told the audience about her Southern upbringing – riding in the back of the bus and drinking off-brand cola because Coke was off limits, but also picking cotton because she liked to, and being part of a family and culture that did everything together.
“When one family is building a house, everyone will go there to help,” she said. “It all goes together with us helping one another because if we don’t stand together, we’d fall apart, and when you can bring the vision between a group of people, there’s no stopping them.”