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Duquesne's Wheatley Society celebrates King's life, legacy

| Monday, Jan. 20, 2014, 10:53 a.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Maikhil Poindexter, 8, of Duquesne perfoms with the Jerusalem Baptist Church mime group.

Duquesne residents of all ages gathered at Macedonia Baptist Church to celebrate the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with prayer, song and inspirational words.

The Phyllis Wheatley Literary Society of Duquesne hosted its annual Martin Luther King Birthday Celebration on Saturday.

Participants honored King's vision and role in the civil rights movement by sharing excerpts of his historic speeches and singing praises of Christian faith.

They played “Guess Who” games, asking the audience to recognize descriptions of prominent figures in black history such as Rosa Parks, Malcom X, Maya Angelou, and of course, Phillis Wheatley.

Born in West Africa as Sasha Gamboa in the early 1750s, she is believed to have been sold into slavery at the age of 7. She was purchased by John Wheatley of Boston and renamed Phillis, after the ship that brought her to America.

The Wheatley family taught her to read and write, and she became the first woman slave to be recognized as a published poet.

“She is ranked 62 among the top 500 poets,” emcee Lindsey Snead said. “That is one marvelous woman.”

Wheatley's namesake society is committed to literacy and higher education. It awards annual scholarships to high school seniors, who reside in Duquesne and attend East Allegheny and West Mifflin Area high schools.

“Education is the most important thing to young people,” society president Marlene Wallington said. “Where would they be without education? If you don't know where you've been, how will you know where you are going?”

Teaching young people about King and others who played important roles in American history is something that will have a lasting impact, members said.

“I couldn't let this pass me by,” Diane Rhodes said. “I needed to be a part of something that would pay tribute to someone who contributed to much to black history.”

The program included poems, speeches, songs, mime performances and dance routines that played on the concept of faith and hope.

“Remember our past,” Gladys Randolph said. “Our past will shed light on our present. Our past and our present will brighten our future.”

Keynote speaker Diaillo Mitchell had dreams of college football and a career in law enforcement, but was paralyzed from the waist down as the result of a July 2013 shooting in Pittsburgh.

“Remember that, with God, nothing shall be impossible,” he said.

By holding onto his faith and thinking about the struggles of those who came before him, Mitchell said he is able to pursue the career of his choice, and he is studying criminal justice at Community College of Allegheny County.

Mitchell reflected on King's “I Have a Dream” speech.

“Although I'd read the speech so many times in school and in church, I don't know if it ever affected me as it did today,” he said.

Mitchell said King's words are about giving everyone the faith to follow their dreams, no matter what adversity they feel they must overcome.

Jennifer R. Vertullo writes for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1956, or