Food for the soul: Celebrating black history

Black Awareness Association members, founders talk about history, heritage

Posted: Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Black History Month is a time of year to reflect on and truly appreciate the blood, sweat and tears of those who came before us, those who brought to us outstanding inventions and accomplishments that have literally shaped our world. It is a time to display who we are."

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Kim Andree / Juneau Empire
Kim Andree / Juneau Empire

- Sherry Patterson, Black Awareness Association vice president

Every February, 23-year Juneau resident Sherry Patterson gets out her history books and surfs the Internet to find new facts about her heritage.

For example, Detroit engineer and inventor Elijah McCoy designed automatic lubricator for locomotives in 1872. He also patented the ironing board and lawn sprinkler.

"The phrase 'The real McCoy' comes from his story," Patterson said.

Another black American featured at the Black Awareness Association's Soul Food Cuisine Lunch fundraiser, held Saturday at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall, was blind pianist Thomas Wiggins, an autistic savant and slave who entertained large crowds in the 19th century.

"There is so much to black history that is so unknown," Patterson said. "It absolutely blows me away."

A member of Juneau's Black Awareness Association for about 10 years now, Patterson takes pride in her culture and has become a prominent figure in the local black community.

"Each time I discover something new, I thank God again for making me who I am - a Christian, a woman who he hand picked for his purpose, to be black."

For association member Charmaine Weeks, Black History Month is a time to reflect on the struggles of African Americans - as well as those who helped the struggle.

"Everyone who struggled side-by-side weren't all African Americans," Weeks said. "A lot of people of a lot of different ethnic backgrounds said, 'This needed to be changed, and together we can make American live up to the promise that we know it can. We can work together side-by-side, African Americans, Caucasians, Native Americans, work together and make change."

Claudia Brown-Paige, 60, and her husband, James Paige, 66, know about change. They are the only Black Awareness Association founders left in Juneau.

"I do see the change, and hopefully it'll just keep on, so by the time my grandkids grow up, it will have come full circle," Brown-Paige said. "Black History Month is just a celebration of looking back from where we started and seeing, little by little, we are moving up."

Brown-Paige and her husband formed the association in 1994, almost 10 years after they moved to Juneau. There were about 14 members then.

"We had company at our house, and we were just sitting around, and somebody said, 'It's Black History Month. We need to do something,'" Brown-Paige said.

Within three weeks, they had planned a dance at the Buoy Deck.

"We had a big, huge turnout," Brown-Paige said. "It was an after-5 affair, so everybody got to dress up. After that, we just started doing it every year."

Although James Paige believes the celebration of black history shouldn't be limited to one month, at least it's something. He said he started the association in Juneau to give blacks and non-blacks a chance to mingle.

"Blacks were not included (back then)," Paige said. "There were a lot of white people and Asian people who had never been in a black person's household."

Paige and the other founders wanted change, and they knew it had to start with the children.

"We wanted them to get to know each other, to entwine and get to see what we were about," Paige said. "That was the way we figured we could get this done. We got people mingling, and it's lasted until now."

Although the original goal in forming the association - to acquire a building for an organization, such as the Filipino Hall or ANB Hall - has changed, they have stayed the course, Paige said.

"The point is that the more we mingle together, the more we get to know each other, each other's cultures, and it entwines us," he said.

The Black Awareness Association has about 12 members today.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were approximately 403 black people (1.3 percent) in Juneau in 2008. Statewide, the black population was 4.3 percent in 2008.

• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at

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