A celebration of local black history paid special honor to Charlene Washington Sunday afternoon.
Washington has promoted black history in Fort Dodge for 50 years. The celebration featured the Fort Dodge Community Choir and presentations from local students, officials and pastors. A crowd of around 100 people filled the basement of First Baptist Church for the event.
Washington moved to Fort Dodge from Mississippi in 1964, and started teaching black history to the children at Second Baptist Church.
She has also compiled books of black history in the area – one can be found at the Fort Dodge Public Library, while another is house in the African-American Museum in Cedar Rapids – and has continued to promote black history in the community.
City Councilman Andy Fritz read a proclamation from the mayor recounting some of Washington’s history and honoring her for her hard work.
“In 1977, she facilitated an organized movement to bring black teachers into Fort Dodge school system, as it was challenging to address black history with the school,” Fritz said.
Former City Councilwoman Jane Burleson said Washington’s life could be a great example to the youth.
“This shows the youth what you can do if you want to,” Burleson said. “(She has shown) the community what can be done, what you can do if you get involved. Don’t sit back and say, ‘They are going to do it.’ You be part of that they.
Washington grew up in the segregated south, and her story is vital for young people to understand, said Fort Dodge historian Roger Natte.
“We forget things, don’t we? Younger people don’t understand what it was like to live in Mississippi and make $7.50 a week working as a domestic,” Natte said.
But Washington’s knowledge of Iowa’s black history was also important in the story of Iowa State Representative Helen Miller.
Miller said she was asked to run for office only two years after moving to Fort Dodge from New Jersey.
“I thought they were out of their minds,” Miller said. “I’m African-American, I’m a female, this is rural Iowa, I’ve lived here for two years – there is no way.
“Then I began to go around the community to talk to people, like Charlene Washington, who basically taught me in a very short time a lot about this city and this state, and what it could be for you if you decide to make it yours. And I made up my mind to make it mine.”
Steve Clayton also spoke. He was one of Washington’s Sunday School students.
“Can you remember what you were doing 50 years ago?” Clayton said. “Fifty years ago in Fort Dodge, it was called ‘unity.’ Family looking after family.
“Thank God for you,” he said to Washington. “Thank God for the training you gave us at Second Baptist.”
Members of the H.C. Merriwether lodge were also there to honor Washington’s work in Black History.
“As Masons we support the effort,” said Jameel Hameed, worshipful master of the lodge. “It’s not just about the older people. It’s about passing it on to the younger generation, so they have something to remember.”
The Rev. DC Darensbourg, pastor of Second Baptist, said Black History is an inseparable part of American history.
“We don’t study African-American history to the disadvantage of another cultural group,” he said. “You don’t have to be anti- what anyone else is to be pro- what you are.”
And it’s important for people to not only learn their history, but keep making history, Natte said.
“When you talk about black history, you’re talking about a history of the people,” he said. “It’s not a history of wars or depressions or even what congress does. Black history is about the people. It’s your story.”