Black History Gala to honor more than a dozen

More than a dozen people will be honored Saturday, Feb. 25, during the third annual Black History Gala at the Dothan Country Club.

The event explores how African Americans have resisted historic and ongoing oppression, and those who are continuing to make history.

The gala is sponsored by the Mike Schmitz Foundation and hosted by Schmitz and Dothan Municipal Court Judge Rose Evans-Gordon. The ticket event raises money for nonprofits in the community.

The red carpet and cocktail festivities begin at 5 p.m. and the dinner and dance commence at 6 p.m. General admission is $75 and the VIP experience is $100.

Nine people ranging in age from 84 to 100 are being honored in the Black Resistance category. They include Gussie Gibson, Gussie Allen, Thaomia Hilliard, Annie Ruth Weatherington, Fannie Huff, Gary Griffin, Pete Afford, Ramona Cleveland, and Mary Ethel Williams.

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Five individuals being cited for representing Black Excellence include Darryl Elliott, Virgil Byrd, Ira Hall, Valerie Russell, and Izell Reese.

Below is a rundown of those being honored this year:

Gussie GibsonA native of Montgomery County, Mrs. Gussie Gibson, 100, is the oldest of four girls born to Jimmy Lee and Sally Lampley. The family moved to Hartford and later to Dothan, where it resided in a close-knit community called Southside.

Gussie attended school through the ninth grade in Hartford, but when she moved to Dothan she quit to start working. She nursed children and did domestic work, and was hired at the Akwell factory, where she worked 16 years before retiring.

Along the way she resumed her schooling, attending adult classes at Carver High School on Lake Street.

She was married to Johnny Gibson for 55 years. They have two daughters, Janice and Johnnie Mae.

The Southside community was uprooted when the city purchased the land and the African American residents had to move. Most of the residents and many of their churches moved to Harmondale Subdivision (Lakeview).

Most of the area was nothing but woods, and for many years there were no paved streets. Gussie’s Southside church, Bethel Missionary Baptist, relocated to Allen Road and changed its name to New Bethel Missionary Baptist.

After the move, Gussie remained active in the church. She was a choir member, Matrons member, Adult Sunday School Class participant, Missionary Department Co-Chair, Mission Circle member, and she assisted with many youth activities.

She attributes her longevity to God’s will. She says she has come this far by leaning and depending on the Lord.

Gussie AllenMrs. Gussie Pearl Lawrence Allen was born in Headland on Dec. 2, 1922. She has been a resident of the Dothan community since late 1939. She wed James Allen on Feb. 2, 1946. They were married 58 years until his death.

Mrs. Allen is a woman of great faith who loves her church family at Greater Beulah Missionary Baptist Church, where she has been a member for 76 years and counting. She attends services regularly and was active in various ministries and auxiliaries until the pandemic.

Mrs. Allen was a member of the Glanton Pride #603 Order of Eastern Star for 76 years. During a long and productive life, she has demonstrated in countless ways her dedication to the welfare of others and has earned the respect and affection of people from all walks of life and all ages who affectionately call her mom, Mother Allen, Aunt Gussie, Cousin Gussie, Granny-Pooh, and Granny-Gran.

In her quiet way Mrs. Allen has been a force for good and a stabilizing influence on those around her. She believes that she can do all things through Christ who strengthens her, constantly humming, “look where He’s brought me from!”

Thaomia HilliardMrs. Thaomia Keith Hilliard, 94, was the sixth of George and Ila Mae Keith’s eight children. She was born in Coffee Springs and attended several area schools as her parents moved around as sharecropper farmers.

Her second time living in Slocomb, she graduated from Geneva County Training School. After attending Selma University, she returned to Slocomb and worked as a substitute teacher. In the early 1960s she became a teacher’s aide at GCTS.

After desegregation, she worked as a teacher’s aide in a kindergarten classroom at Slocomb Elementary School – the only African American. Somewhere along the way, she decided to become one of the custodians.

She kept her connection to the children by helping them during the school’s annual Science Fair. She joined a few of them in Washington, D.C., as they competed at the national level. She retired from the Geneva County School District at 65.

Thaomia and her husband Tallis Hilliard had five children. An interesting fact about being honored at the Dothan Country Club is that Tallis was the greenskeeper until he passed in the early 1970s. Each summer he brought Thaomia and the children to clean the golf cart shed.

Thaomia never met a stranger and her smile is contagious.

Annie Ruth WeatheringtonMrs. Annie Ruth Weatherington, 87, was born in Houston County to Willie Charles Bogar and Minnie Lee Brunson Bogar. The second-born of the couple’s nine children, she remembers laboring in the fields and picking cotton as young child with her mother, father, and siblings. She also remembers doing laundry for others to help provide for her family. Times got better once she became an employee at Hedstrom.

Mrs. Weatherington shares her life experiences with segregation, low working wages, and discrimination with her descendants. She fought for her rights as an employee by joining co-workers in a strike at Charles Manufacturing Company in Dothan.

She was married to Wesley Weatherington for more than 50 years. They had five children and raised five of their grandchildren as their own. Mrs. Weatherington has lived all her life in the community known as “Stateline” at the Alabama-Florida border.

As a member of Antioch Baptist Church for more than 70 years, Mrs. Weatherington is a faithful and hardworking servant. She has served as a Deaconess, chair of the kitchen committee, choir member, a member of the Ladies Aide Society, a member of the Pastor’s Aide committee, and the church custodian.

If you ask anyone what her God-given gift is, they will tell you it’s her cooking. Her collard greens, fried chicken, cornbread, and crab salad should be packaged and sold.

Mrs. Weatherington’s greatest attributes are her unwavering faith in God, her love and dedication to her family, and her gentle, kind, and giving spirit.

Fannie HuffMrs. Fannie Jewell Huff (Flowers) was born in Pike County, Alabama, on Sept. 26, 1935. She attended Grant Elementary School, Hillcrest, and South High School in Youngstown, Ohio. Ms. Fannie returned to Alabama in 1958 and has lived in Slocomb ever since.

The mother of one son and seven daughters, she has been a member of County Line Missionary Baptist Church for over 60 years.

Ms. Fannie serves her church and community. For years, she donated underwear and supplied soap and lotion to the Geneva County jail inmates.

Ms. Fannie is known as the cooking lady in her community, sending food to anyone in need. If you are hungry or just want to eat, everyone knows to go by Ms. Fannie’s house, especially on Sunday. Her hobbies include reading (still able to read two or three books a week), cooking, watching murder mysteries, and politics.

Gary GriffinGary Jerome Thornton Griffin, 84, was raised in Dothan by his parents and grandparents, Wallace and Lucille Griffin Smith and Porter and Alma Griffin.

He is married to Renay Davenport Griffin and a member Greater Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, Headland.

He has a master of Public Administration degree from The American University, Washington, D.C. He held positions of increasing responsibility within the Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Washington, D.C. He was Director of Civilian Personnel and Equal Employment Opportunity and Chief of Electronic Communications and Maintenance.

He has served as consultant to the Director of Business Services, Bowie State University, Bowie, Md. He was Human Resource Manager, Potomac Job Corps Center, Washington, D.C., and worked for the City of Dothan as its Equal Employment Officer.

He was an owner/consultant to the Department of Labor Job Corps Center Programs for Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Pa., Miami, Fla., Brunswick, Ga., and Gulfport, Ms.

His memberships and affiliations include: Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, American Federation of Community Credit Unions, Blacks in Government, Disabled American Veterans, Member of Board of Directors American Red Cross, President, Board of Directors Wiregrass Area Food Bank, Past Chair Dothan Personnel Board, and Past President Men’s Civic Club.

He served in the United States Air Force and is a graduate of the Schools of Communications and Cryptographic Instructions.

In April 1973, he filed the first class-action discrimination lawsuit against the Department of Defense, on behalf of Black employees, to test the new Equal Employment Act passed by Congress in 1972. The suit was successful and opened the door for other Blacks to obtain jobs within the Department of Defense and other government agencies.

His honors and awards are numerous, including the NAACP Roy Wilkins Meritorious Award, 1987, New York City, N.Y., and the Outstanding Employee Service Award for 13 consecutive years with the Defense Communications Agency, Washington, D.C.

Pete AffordLeroy “Pete” Afford was born April 11, 1938, on East Burdeshaw Street in Dothan. He was welcomed by his parents Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt Afford and five siblings.

“Pete” attended Dothan City Schools. After high school he worked at B.C. Moore in downtown Dothan. After being recognized for his charming demeanor, well-dressed and coifed presentation (he is rarely seen without a suit and tie), communication skills and overall customer service, he was recruited to work at Dothan Bank and Trust, which became First Alabama Bank and then Regions Bank.

In the banking world “Pete” is renowned for being one of the first African Americans in Dothan to be employed in the banking industry, where he worked for more than 40 years. He was the first African American to become a member Dothan Elks Lodge 1887, where he also worked for 30-plus years. He is also a lifelong member of Wiregrass Elks Lodge 810.

He has long been active in Stringer Street Church where he has been recognized as one of the longest serving members. Realizing that only what you do for Christ will last, “Pete” serves as a Steward, a member of the Sons of Allen, and a Sunday school teacher.

Although he has had many accomplishments and accolades, he is most proud of the fact that he raised three daughters as a single parent with the help of his mother and later his wife Sara, who has been loving and supportive of all his endeavors. He is also very active in the lives of his grand and great-grandchildren.

Although he had all girls, “Pete” continues to be invested in the young black men in his community. Many of the young men growing up in the neighborhood recount their admiration for “Mr. Pete” who represented what an active father and provider looked like in a community where there were few or no role models in that area. Many attribute their work ethic to “Mr. Pete” helping them get their first job.

Ramona ClevelandMrs. Ramona Whitman Cleveland, 94, was the fourth child and only daughter of Charlie and Lucille Whitman of Birmingham.

She lived the normal life of a child growing up in a segregated society. She graduated from Washington Elementary School, A.H. Parker High School and Miles Memorial College, where she received a Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in Social Studies and a minor in English and French.

She taught American History and English for four years at Carver High School in Union Springs and American History and French for eight years at Carver High School in Monroe, Ga.

She moved to Dothan in 1968. She taught American History, Alabama History, and Geography at Carver High School for one year, then taught General American History and Advanced American History at Dothan High School. After Northview High School opened she transferred there and taught American History, American Government, and Economics until she retired in May 1989.

Upon retirement she became director of the First Missionary Baptist Church Daycare Center. Additionally, she was a servant leader who taught Sunday School, belonged to church groups, and served 33 years as President of the Missionary Department.

Her melodious voice was an asset as a soloist in the senior choir and a regular participant in weekly prayer service. Mrs. Cleveland was deeply involved with the local, state, and national conventions.

Through the years she coordinated activities that provided services that brought joy to individuals in Alabama and Florida nursing homes. She mentored young leaders who have taken the mantel and followed in her footsteps.

Her community affiliations include: Past secretary of Local AARP Chapter #388, former member and officer of The Eureka Club, member of the Amy Washington Chapter #858 O.E.S., member of the Alabama Education Association, member of the National Education Association, member of the Alabama Retired Teachers Association, member of Houston/Henry County Retired Teachers Association, and member of Community Diabetes Organization.

Her motto: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” Matthew 6:33

Mary Ethel WilliamsMrs. Mary Ethel Williams was born April 30, 1931, in Henry County near Abbeville, the first child of Ellis Morrison and Rosie Lee Williams. Her brother, Jessie Lee, now deceased, was born Aug. 9, 1933, and sister, Betty Jean, also deceased, was born Nov. 27, 1935.

Later, the family moved to Headland, where Mary Ethel was reared and educated in the segregated black schools. After finishing junior high, her mother enrolled her in Northside Colored High School where she attended through grade 11 before dropping out to get married.

She married King Williams Jr. on Oct. 15, 1950. They eloped to Fort Gaines, Ga., and, immediately after marrying, rushed back to Headland to get Mary Ethel back to church so she could fulfill her duty as usher that night. After church, Mary Ethel went home with her parents. She continued to live with them in Headland and King with his parents in Newville. Their marriage remained a secret for two weeks before Rosie Lee discovered the marriage license.

After the discovery, King and Mary Ethel lived with his parents in Newville for two and half years. King, who quit school at age 14, worked in the field. His father, King Williams Sr., held the office of treasurer for the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and encouraged Mary Ethel to join.

She became a member of the NAACP in 1952 after which she voted for the first time. She paid a poll tax to do so because, at the time, Alabama was one of five states that maintained poll taxes, which were aimed at disenfranchising black voters and institutionalizing segregation. The first few times she voted, she was afraid and nervous, because white people gathered at the voting place to frighten, intimidate, and prevent black people from voting. Since being granted the right, she has never failed to vote.

In 1955, after he was able to get work at the local hardware store, King and Mary Ethel moved to Headland. She did domestic work for a schoolteacher named Mrs. Louise Weston for nine years. In 1956, after being recommended, she began working for Mrs. Teressa Morriss doing domestic work and helping her raise her three children Terry Lynn, Edwin, and Mark. On August 14, 1958, Mary Ethel’s and Kings’s only child, Rickey Carl Williams, was born. Mrs. Morriss’ husband, Dr. J. E. Morriss, Jr., delivered him in his office in Headland.

Mary Ethel Williams is recognized in Henry County as a strong and persistent woman who is driven to do whatever it is she is passionate about. She is a former Headland councilwoman credited with igniting the effort to rename a major section of Peachtree Street in Headland Martin Luther King Drive. She is also responsible for the naming of a subdivision in the city after A.B. Cotton, now deceased, who was an educator and activist in the city. Her actions helped foster the black community’s sense of belonging and place in the city.

Darryl Elliott and Virgil ByrdDarryl Elliott (aka Darryl E) and Virgil Byrd (aka Virgil K) have been friends since 1982, have been in the broadcasting business since 1984, and are still broadcasters today.

Their work as entertainers has spanned decades and made it natural for them to move into the arena of music festivals.

In 2011, a conversation in the WBBK Studio about doing a festival in Dothan (something unheard of in the African-American community) resulted in Tri-State Family Reunion, an event that brings in thousands of people and has staying power.

Ira HallIra Hall is the owner/president of TUFF Masonry LLC (2017) and founder of TUFF Masonry Apprenticeship Program Inc. (2020). He has been involved in masonry construction for 24 years and holds Local Union #1 Minnesota/North Dakota certification. With an emphasis on brick, block, stone, and concrete, Hall has traveled throughout the United States and gained expertise from working in different climates and learning from experienced tradesmen.

As a Dothan native, Hall is dedicated to giving back to his community through the creation of a mentorship program that gives teenagers and young adults the same opportunity he had in order to make a good living and be creative. He hopes to inspire and educate young people as they transition into adulthood, with the end goal of establishing a trade program in every low-income community.

Valerie RussellValerie Lynn Russell was born in 1972 in Enterprise to Wayne and Annie Jean Russell-Elliard. At an early age Wayne taught her the importance of entrepreneurship and owning real estate. Wayne was the co-owner of Russell & Fleming Vault Company. He purchased real estate properties throughout Enterprise.

He grew crops which consisted of corn, peas, and okra. He also owned livestock. During summer months while most kids were at camp or vacationing, Valerie and her cousins worked as field hands. They picked peas in the hot sun. Their pay was a trip to Mr. Edwards’ grocery store on Daleville Avenue. They could pick any one item of their choice.

Little did Valerie know, her father was teaching good work ethic and preparing her for the real world. Her father would always tell her, “Lynn, I want you to do more than I did. No excuses.”

A 1991 high school graduate of Enterprise High School, Valerie attended Alabama A&M University where she earned a B.S. degree in Communications with a concentration in marketing.

Although Valerie had been groomed for entrepreneurship, she found media exciting. In 1996 she launched her TV career as a morning show producer and reporter in Columbia, S.C. She got her real estate license, and later received her broker’s license and opened her own real estate firm in South Carolina, Crescent Real Estate.

During the peak of her real estate career, her life took an unexpected turn which created a temporary setback. She maintained her real estate broker’s license but shut down her company and returned to corporate America at an NBC affiliate in Columbia, S.C. She was the first African-American woman to work as an account executive at this station. During her 15-year tenure at the television station, she earned awards, trips, and maximum income.

In September 2020 Valerie was approached by a senior executive in Gray Television to meet with the general manager of WTVY in Dothan. Although it felt surreal, she knew God was calling her back home to the Wiregrass after 30 years. After six interviews, Valerie was hired as the first African American general sales manager at WTVY. She was recently promoted to general manager of the station.

She recently authored her first book, Corporate Christian 101 where she shares Christian principles on how to navigate through corporate America and not lose one’s core values.

Izell ReeseIzell Reese is the CEO for RCX Sports. A former college athlete, Reese walked on at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, eventually earning a scholarship, and posting stats that drew the attention of NFL scouts. Reese was drafted by the Cowboys in 1998 and spent seven years in the NFL, spending his career playing for the Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, and Buffalo Bills.

Reese joined the Reigning Champs family 13 years ago and has remained dedicated to the mission of impacting youth through sports. He has helped secure notable partnerships with top leagues and sports-centric brands, including the Jr. NBA, NFL, NHL, national governing bodies and led the expansion of the organization’s youth-sports initiatives.

In 2019, Reigning Champs announced the launch of RCX, an experiential events business designed to engage youth athletes, families, and fans in new, innovative, and experiential ways. Reese played an integral role in the discussions that led to RCX’s partnership with NFL FLAG.

As the official operating partner of NFL FLAG, RCX now also oversees NFL FLAG leagues and tournament play beginning with the operation of the NFL FLAG Championships in January of 2020 with special emphasis placed on providing support to local leagues and participant growth, specifically among girls. As part of the female participation growth, NFL FLAG helped orchestrate launching flag football for females as a collegiate sport for NAIA and NJCAA.

Since being named CEO, Reese secured partnerships with NHL, MLB, and a continued partnership with the Jr. NBA running its global championships and Jr. NBA leagues. RCX Sports is launching a new youth property in partnership with the NHL named NHL Street. NHL Street will expand across North America with recreational hockey programming, and the program is designed to be local, affordable, and age-appropriate engaging kids from ages 5-17. In the new partnership with the MLB, RCX will run and reimagine their Junior Home Run Derby and Pitch Hit & Run properties.

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