BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE
VIRGINIA BEACH — During the ceremony this past month, before the blessing of 4.8 acres of Lake Edward Park that someday will be the home of the African American Cultural Center, young people worked at a row of tables adorned with canvases that, when united, form a greater work.
A young artist who goes by El, 19, helped create the painting, which showed two figures, one past, one present, near a tree of knowledge. People attending the blessing ceremony signed the tree. Their names became part of it.
“It’s multiple pieces into one,” El said. “Everybody gets to sign their name on the tree.”
“The tree represents growth,” said Malik Jordan, 17, a spoken word poet, member of the Hampton Roads Youth Poets and a junior at Lake Taylor High School. “It’s interactive art.”
So, too, will be this center. The project, surrounded by six of the 12 historically African American neighborhoods in the city, is meant to become a destination that will house history, artifacts, collections and more. Classrooms, a hall, a historical walking path and outdoor event spaces are planned.
“We can’t wait for it to be built so we can participate and be active,” said Tameka Neely of Chesapeake, a member of the Virginia Beach chapter of Delta Sigma Theta. Her name was among those written into the painting.
The center has long been a goal of City Councilmember Dr. Amelia Ross-Hammond, a retired Norfolk State University professor and the only black person to serve on the current city council.
“Our vision is for the center to be a regional leader in generating historical and cultural content,” she said during an interview.
Before the blessing itself, when people gathered in a circle around the land in fellowship, young people took the stage and held the panels of the painting together. There was the tree with names written into its trunk and branches. And there were the figures, one with a drum, another wearing headphones. Someday, Ross-Hammond said later, it will be displayed in the center.
The blessing included prayer and a symbolic gift of water to the land, to elders, and then drums played as though binding it all.
After the ceremony, Pat Washington of Green Run visited a table showing historical artifacts, including pictures of local educators, a Civil War cap and a sign said to have been from a local store during the time of segregation.
It was marked with an antiquated term that once told black people where to enter a business. Items on the table had been collected by local historian and author Edna Hawkins-Hendrix. Such items, too, will someday be in the center.
Washington’s grandchildren, 10-year-old Zoe Hamer and 8-year-old Nathanyal Mackey, looked at the items, even touched the sign.
“Do you know what this is all about?” Washington asked her grandchildren, but they did not.
“Well, that’s why they’re out here,” Washington said. “So they can learn.”
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