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By Mary Harrison,
Organizing for Grady County held its first annual “Juneteenth Community Freedom Day Celebration” on Saturday, June 19, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Cairo High School gymnasium. The program included a message from Cairo native the Rev. Dr. Perry Simmons Jr., and the honoring of nearly 50 Grady countians with “Black Excellence Community Awards” for their past, present and future service.
The festivities, originally to be held at Miles & Son Car Wash behind Cairo’s Holder Park, had to be moved into the C.H.S. gym on Saturday morning due to Tropical Storm Claudette.
“We are very appreciative of C.H.S allowing us to use their facilities so we didn’t have to reschedule,” commented O.G.C. acting president Cheryl Cruel-Simmons.
While rain prevented some scheduled events, including a children’s talent show, vendors still sold food, apparel and jewelry from booths in the gym’s lobby and under its front awning. Some sponsors provided free food for celebrants, according to Cruel-Simmons.
Organization co-founder Erica Hunter says that the weather did not dampen the celebration, however.
“It was wonderful. I think everything about it was great,” Hunter commented. “I think it went very well for the first year… We pray we can continue doing it every year so that more people can be honored.”
Keynote speaker, the Rev. Dr. Perry Simmons Jr., son of Mrs. Pinkie Norwood Simmons and the late Reverend Perry Simmons Sr., kicked off the celebration recounting the history of the Emancipation Proclamation, Juneteenth celebrations and the end of slavery in the United States.
The Reverend based his message on Exodus 3:7-8, telling attendees that “[God] sees, He hears, and He knows,” the needs of His people.
Officially recognized as the eleventh United States federal holiday last Thursday, Juneteenth commemorates the emancipation of black Americans on June 19, 1865, the Rev. Simmons reminded the crowd, when 250,000 enslaved people in Texas, the last vestige of Confederate slavery, were read the Emancipation Proclamation and learned of their freedom.
During Saturday’s program, O.G.C. recognized a total of 49 members of the Grady County community for carrying on the spirit of “Black Excellence” of their emancipated ancestors.
Cruel-Simmons noted the “importance of honoring past, present, and future pillars in the community,” noting that they are “unsung heroes” for going “above and beyond” to serve Grady County.
“We have so much to be grateful for,” host Pamela White Howard remarked of the honorees. “There is a wealth of talent and ability right here in the Hospitality City of Cairo… There are people from our hometown doing great things.”
The organization first celebrated 10 trailblazers of all ages who “made strides in representing Black Excellence” in the Cairo-Grady County community.
Honorees were as follows: Mrs. Pinke Norwood Simmons, former midwife and Neighborhood Service Center director; Mr. James E. Miller, prominent 1970’s businessman and local civil rights activist; Mr. Booker T. Gainor IV, Washington Middle School educator and former Cairo mayor; the Rev. Renee Gee-Theophille, past president of the county’s Martin Luther King Collaborative; Willie “Bruh” Sanford, Army veteran and Grady County teacher; the Rev. Sylvester Williams, first African-American elected to the Grady County Board of Commissioners; Pastor Annette Higdon, pastor and apostle of Fresh Start Global Outreach Ministries; Mr. Talmadge Smart Jr., music teacher and school counselor in Grady County Schools for 53 years; Mrs. A.B. Flowers, founder of the Grady County Ministers’ Wives Alliance; and Fergus Robinson, spiritual leader and mentor for men countywide.
Tributes to 13 “Pioneers of the Past” followed, with O.G.C. releasing balloons in memory of outstanding community members who have already passed away.
Those posthumously recognized include Mrs. A.B. Flowers, Mr. James Cruel, Coach Gazyett McCord, Mr. Melvin Johnson, Mr. James E. Miller, Mrs. Pearline Thompson, Mr. Frizell Ray, Mr. Willie C. Thomas, Mr. Willie Sanford, Mr. Cecil Weston, Mr. Anthony Cochran, Mrs. A.K. Anderson and Mrs. Oshie Williford.
The group also celebrated 15 “Pillars of the Present” for their current contributions to the community, awarding certificates of appreciation to Mrs. Pinkie Norwood Simmons, Mr. Arthur Anderson, Mrs. Ida Curry Goar, the Rev. Sylvester Williams, Mrs. Angela Hopkins, Mr. Ernest “Bobo” Cloud, Pastor Annette Higdon, Dr. Yvonne Stewart, Mr. Talmadge Smart, Mrs. LaFaye Copeland, Mr. Farrell Siler, the Rev. Renee Gee-Theophille, Mrs. Tilda Brimm and Mr. Gus Mango III.
Eleven community leaders hailed by O.G.C. as the “Hope of the Future” included Mr. Booker T. Gainor IV, Ms. Audrey Anderson, Mr. Fergus Robinson, Ms. Erikka Edwards, Dr. Johnnie Marshall Jr., Ms. Courtney Brown, Mr. Jevar McGhee, Mrs. Shmyra Hopkins Fountain, Mr. J.J. Wilcox, Ms. NeAnn Wooten and Mr. Clifford Hammonds IV.
Rising Syrupmaker senior Nikiyah Brown was also recognized for winning Thomasville’s first Miss Juneteenth pageant on Friday night, according to Cruel-Simmons, although acknowledgments of black honor graduates and senior superlatives in the C.H.S. class of 2021 had to be postponed.
Presentations were interspersed with line dancing; performances by local artists like A.M.O.N.I. Mime Ministries, “Dominique” and “BabyCee” Christina Brown; and music provided by disc jockey Tracy McGhee.
Cruel-Simmons says that she and O.G.C. co-founders Barbara Lowe and Erica Hunter began planning the county’s inaugural celebration seven months ago, with help from community organizer Pamela White Howard. Howard is a grandchild of local civil rights activist and honoree James E. Miller.
All honorees were selected by a committee of O.G.C. members, according to Hunter, and presenters included Royale Armstrong and Cheryl Cruel-Simmons.
Organizing for Grady County started in 2016 and became an official 501(c)3 nonprofit in 2017. Cruel-Simmons has served as acting president of the civic education and voter registration group since last October, after becoming vice president in 2019.
“[Juneteenth is] a recognition of American history, not just African-American history,” the acting president remarked. “I’m happy that more people are getting knowledge of our [collective] American history.”