Parker black history collage
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Black history stories shared with Parker Junior High students

From top left, Kenya Johnson, Carolyn Smith, Chakeeta Myles, Ebony Roberts and Osun Briggs shared stories of African Americans who inspire them.


The stories speak for themselves.

During February, Black History Month, H-F community members are talking about African Americans who inspired them to lead lives of hard work and dedication, and how that has led to success.

From top left, Kenya Johnson, Carolyn Smith, Chakeeta Myles, Ebony Roberts and Osun Briggs shared stories of African Americans who inspire them.

Ebony Roberts, who owns a Tinley Park salon, says she continues to be inspired by Marjorie Stewart Joyner, a pioneer in black beauty culture in Chicago who was also a force for political action in the mid-20th century.

Carolyn Smith, the managing partner of a food safety company, says she was inspired by George Washington Carver, the famous plant scientist, but also by her great-grandmother, Macy Parks, who lived in the Jim Crow south and experienced race-based violence while working as a farmer for six decades.

Osun Briggs, an entertainer, says she is inspired by Aretha Franklin and the legendary singer-songwriter’s struggle to overcome challenges in the music world and American society.

Chakeeta Myles, the CEO of a transportation company, pointed to her uncle, Phillip Jackson, who throughout his life stressed the importance of black people becoming financially independent.

Kenya Johnson, a professional singer and songwriter, says her father, Calvin McGuire, a drummer, inspired her with a love of music.

All five were interviewed for this year’s Black History Month project at Parker Junior High School in Flossmoor. In November, Flossmoor School District 161 asked parents and other community members to tell their inspirational stories, discuss their jobs, describe what they have learned over the years and give their thoughts on African American history. More interviews took place throughout January.

During February, the interviews are being shown to Parker students during the morning video announcements, the Blue and Gold Broadcasts. Those video announcements are posted on YouTube.

Black History Month will culminate with an evening program at Parker on Feb. 25. That event will feature in-person presentations from community members sharing their life experiences.

“This approach to celebrating black history is so valuable to us because we want students to learn about the past and the role models in our community who are making history right now,” said Parker Principal Amabel Crawford. “This will allow students to connect with people and experiences that are close to home to plant the seeds for meaningful relationships.”

Lisa Kauffman, a District 161 parent, said members of the Black History Month Committee planned a program that would be age appropriate for junior high students.

“We wanted a program that would make the kids start to think about their future and the different careers available to them,” Kauffman said. “We also wanted the kids to look to African Americans, both past and present, as inspiration for the choices they will make.

“Importantly, we wanted to actively involve parents and community members in the program. The feeling was that the community, as a whole, needs to be invested in these kids. Part of the way they can do that is by sharing their own stories of inspiration.”

During the interviews the five speakers said they are aware that they are making history right now.

“I am making history by showing young women and men that they can do what I do,” Briggs said. “It might not be easy but it is so gratifying when you go out there and do what you love to do, whether it’s singing, dancing, writing or making music. Never give up on that dream.”

All said they have extremely busy days. As a solo jazz singer, Johnson rehearses her voice and plays the piano. She’s on the phone a great deal, booking shows and otherwise promoting her career. She hosts a podcast, “Making Money in the Music Business.” There are recording sessions and out-of-town shows.

It’s the same with the other speakers, too. Steady, uninterrupted work, and being the best you can be, is a constant theme for all of them. That’s a lesson they learned from their inspirational role models.

Smith, whose company is dedicated to good, healthy food, is inspired by the fact that her great-grandmother worked the land for so many years. But she is also aware of the hardships that Macy Parks faced in Statesville, Georgia, in the early 20th century. 

Her great-grandmother had 19 children – Smith’s grandfather was the youngest. In 1904, Parks’ husband, a local pastor, was lynched and murdered by people who wanted to steal the land from people of color. After that, Parks started sending some of her children north so that they would be safer.

Ultimately, the land that was taken became the site of Georgia Southern University. Smith said her family’s story led to a “piece of justice that exists today.”

Georgia Southern was only open to white males until the 1960s. Since then, the number of female and black students at the school has steadily grown. Today, 54 percent of the university’s enrollment is made up of women, and 30 percent are students of color.

“Keep on it, hang in there and do what you do,” Smith said. “Change happens.”

Myles said her uncle, Phillip Jackson, founded the Black Star Project, an organization that works to improve the lives of African Americans in the Chicago area.

“Uncle Phillip always talked about the importance of black people getting educated and black people knowing the value of the black dollar, and building generational wealth,” Myles said.

“My uncle inspired me to get out there and start my own business. Instead of investing in a corporation, I invested in myself.” 

Black history should not be about the past, the speakers said. It should also be about the future.

Johnson said black history provides a moment to not only reflect on the past “but to aspire to the future.”

“It’s like we should have a black future month,” she said. “That way we can have a historic look but also be inspired to be great. We should look at what’s happening now. There are people today who are doing amazing things.”

Black history “means being in tune with our culture,” Roberts said.

“It has to do with the richness of what our ancestors fought through, struggled through, the determination, the drive, the will to get up every day, even when the opportunity wasn’t there,” she said. ”It’s being aware of all of that and not diminishing who we are as a people just because some other people might not understand it.”

Johnson said history is “what has gotten us here to this moment.”

“Unless you know that history of how that got to be until today, you’re missing the deep appreciation of the people who came before you who, in turn, empower you to be resilient in your own life for those people who come after you.”  

Myles said that, to her, black history means “power.”

“I wish that all black people knew how great we are, and some of the great things we have done throughout history, throughout American history,” she said. “Black people do great. Work hard. Do great.”

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