For most of America, 2020 was defined by COVID-19: Life stood still beginning around February.
But if the pain of losing family and friends to a scourge was not enough, the Black community was dealt another blow with the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.
Floyd’s death at the knee of a white police officer caused explosive despair and outrage, resulting in protests by people of many races and ages around the world embracing the Black Lives Matter movement.
Village resident Annie McCary says she still finds it difficult to speak publicly about the deep emotions she felt watching the brutal way Floyd was killed and how she cried for weeks afterward.
Still, while her own tears subsided, she felt empathy for Floyd’s family.
“Something that probably not many people consider, ‘Black lives’ include survivors of those killed,” McCary said.
In honor of Black History Month, the Globe spoke with McCary, president of the Village’s African American Heritage Club, and club members Willie Phillips, Gloria Jordan Williams and Willie Sargent III. They shared their reactions to Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement, aspects of their personal history as African Americans, and their hopes for the community.
McCary, a seven-year Laguna Woods resident, says she was drawn to the Village by its beauty and tranquility, its amenities and its residents with positive attitudes.
Having grown up in Alabama, McCary says she knows of so many other young Black men and women killed for reasons that make no sense, but for the color of their skin.
“I know only too well of the wounds that don’t heal with the passage of time,” she said. “I know only too well how often the scabs of those wounds are peeled off with the next senseless killing.”
She praises the Black Lives Matter movement because it spans generations and brings to mind civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.
“I want that my children and grandchildren will someday be judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin,” she said, paraphrasing King. “Hopefully, this is the difference a movement like BLM can make.”
The events of last summer spurred poignant memories among other Black residents of the Village, who largely see the Black Lives Matter movement as an outgrowth of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, and of institutional and social racism that refuses to vanish.
For Willie Sargent III, a pastor and 13-year Village resident, the Black Lives Matter movement is “an extension of what happened in 1963, a continuation of the civil rights movement.”
Sargent, 74, recalls the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, by local members of the Ku Klux Klan. Four young girls died and as many as 22 other people were injured in the blast.
Sargent had moved to Birmingham from more liberal Detroit in 1960 and said the transition was a shock to him. He said he lost a good friend, Carole Robertson, in the explosion.
That loss left an indelible mark on him, he said, propelling him toward the civil rights movement. He remembers meeting King, who ultimately inspired him to help Black Americans register to vote.
“That was a dangerous role, driving around, surrounded by the Ku Klux Klan,” he recalled.
These days, Sargent sees hope with the Black Lives Matter movement: “I see positive change coming with many people now contributing to it.”
As a pastor, Sargent is following in his father’s footsteps.
“It took time to get me from Birmingham to California, but the early experiences of (segregationist politician) Bull Connor setting dogs and firehoses on people turned me into a man of faith,” he said.
He said his life has led him to believe that “everyone walking on this planet is meant to be here. God makes no mistakes.”
During the pandemic, Sargent and his wife, Harriette, have taken ministry to a new level.
“We are assisting families in need with monetary gifts and are partnering with the Laguna Woods Foundation, donating at least twice a year,” he said. “We also contribute to scholarships providing books and materials to high school and college students.”
As for life in the Village, he said: “My wife brought me here. She wanted to live here since she’s so outgoing. When you enter through those gates, it’s like going into another country.”
Gloria Jordan Williams, 86, has lived in the Village for three years. The retired medical, public welfare and public school social worker moved here from Indiana to be near four of her five children. She joined the African American Heritage Club to connect with other Black residents and to promote her culture and heritage.
For Williams, the death of Floyd was painfully familiar.
“The big difference lay in the presence of technology to graphically record the death of a Black man,” she said. “I was appalled and saddened, but after years of having heard, read and witnessed the treatment of Black men and women, my shock level was much lower than it should have been.”
She recalls, too, her upbringing in the segregated South: “I grew up under Jim Crow and ‘the law of the land’ with its restrictions and designations,” Williams said.
“My relatives and I have been listed as ‘Colored,’ ‘Negro,’ ‘Black’ and ‘African-American’ on legal documents over the course of our lives. My maternal grandmother is described as ‘Mulatto’ on my mother’s birth certificate.”
Willie Phillips grew up in Louisiana in the 1950s and ’60s and began to ponder racism at age 6, he said.
“Why were there White and Colored water fountains?” he wondered. “Why so many bathrooms in one place? Why, at age 8, did he get slapped by a shopkeeper for not suffixing a man’s name on a tobacco label with ‘Mr.’ when shopping for the product?”
Memories of an 18-year-old classmate beaten to death and hanging from a tree haunt Phillips.
“He got killed 8 miles from school by white men who never got charged,” he said.
Phillips joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and marched with the Black Panther Party.
“Through all this, I learned to be a thermometer rather than a thermostat. I’ve learned that the oppressors have to be the ones to end oppression. I’ve learned that not talking about racism doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” he said.
Phillips married Sharon, a California native, in 1988 and returned to Louisiana to begin a church. Ultimately, he became the bishop and state chair of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World. He resigned in 2014 to move back to California.
The couple have lived in Laguna Woods for six years, drawn by the closeness to the beach, the reasonable prices, and the safety, health care and activities for seniors.
Still, he longs for a more viable and active African American community in the Village
“It’s almost as if we are an afterthought,” he said. “We just stay in our lane and want to live out the remainder of our lives enjoying the fruits of our labors.”
This being Black History Month, a question arose about the teaching of Black history in schools.
“I was never taught African American history in any school. I had to search it out later in life,” Phillips said. “I would like to see it taught truthfully wherever history is taught.”
By contrast, Sargent recalls African American history being taught from grade school on. Although the curriculum owes its existence to segregation, he said, “we knew about the wonderful accomplishments of Black people. We passed our knowledge on to our children and the message that we could do anything we desire.”
Hence, he said, his children went to the U.S. Air Force Academy, became district attorneys, reached executive positions in organizations such as Teach for America and in municipal services.
Williams recalls African American history taught from kindergarten through college. She does not recall specific courses but said the accomplishments of Black historical figures were celebrated through writings and dramatizations.
Circling back to life in the Village, conversations turned to the arts and entertainment as they pertain to the African American community. Phillips said there needs to be not only more African American-related arts but more arts from other cultures.
“I pray that things will never return to the old ‘normal,’” he said. “We must insist on a new ‘normal’ moving forward.”
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