Bethel AME program looks beyond black history in Heritage Museum program

| Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, 7:14 p.m.

Loretta Howell appreciates that Black History Month focuses on the challenges and triumphs of past African Americans. But, Howell, 73, of Harrison said she hopes this year's installment of Bethel AME Church's Black History Program can provide more than a history lesson.

“(The program) is an awareness of our history,” she says of the event, which will run from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Feb. 23 at the Alle-Kiski Valley Hisorical Society's Heritage Museum in Tarentum. “But, I also know, in my heart, it's important that we know where we're going. We're moving past when we were thrown off the boats. We need to move up. We need to give our children the knowledge to succeed and better themselves.”

Past and present will be in full view at the event. Howell, who chairs the program with Joyce Ballard, said the free event will feature musical selections from Alle-Kiski Valley choirs and soloists and will include liturgical dance.

Upper Burrell's Howard Clements will display hand-carved African artifacts, including masks and furniture.

Author Eric Manley, a New Kensington native who wrote the book “12 Shades of Men,” will give the keynote speech titled “Facets of Civil Rights.”

“It's very humbling and surreal,” Manley says about giving his speech. “It makes me think about where it all started for me. I never thought I'd be a published author.”

Manley, who lives in Ohio and is a college-admissions representative, said his talk will focus on those who helped advance the civil-rights cause, but he also hopes to provide young people with inspiration.

“Education is your new money,” he says of the message he wants to convey. “When you enlarge your mind, you enlarge your territory. Education is the best equalizer.

“It gives us an opportunity to do things we might not be able to do. You realize New Kensington's not the only place out there.”

Manley hopes to inspire further action from listeners of his speech. “The things that took place in the '60s, they made more changes in that decade than we've done since,” he says. “Where are we going as a country?

“You have to be willing to serve. How is your character when no one else is watching?”

Dolly Mistrik, the president of the society, says it's important for her group to be a part of an event that celebrates the Alle-Kiski Valley's African-American population.

“It's our society's goal to educate the younger generation of all backgrounds,” Mistrik says. “We love being a part of this event.

“We're more than happy to bring Bethel AME in and have them share their history with us. It's their history, they know it, and they do a wonderful job.”

Mistrik says people might be surprised by the level of racism that was seen in the Alle-Kiski Valley at one time.

“There was a lot of segregation, not as bad as it was in the South, but it was here,” Mistrik says. “A lot of people don't realize it, but it was here.”

Mistrik said segregation was so bad in Brackenridge that African Americans could only live in a certain section of the borough, by the Allegheny Ludlum plant.

Howell said the aim of the event is to educate, but she also hopes to see people build relationships.

“It's fun, the music is great, and the speakers are wonderful,” says Howell, also a member of the Bethel AME choir, which will perform at the event. “But, we're also coming together to learn about each other.

“You don't do that when you run into church and you run out of church and you're gone. You don't have time to be social.”

R.A. Monti is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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