By Mrinal Gokhale
For the first time in five years, Barbara Chism organized a black history month celebration at Merrill Park Senior Living Apartments at 222 N. 33rd St. Chism is a both a Merrill Park apartment resident and president of the resident organization board.
She held the event yearly, but did not do so for the past five years due to illness. On Saturday, Feb. 26, she brought together 79 residents to celebrate Black History Month for the first time since her recovery.
“There are 109 apartments here. We’ve had this event with over 100 people attending but there are slightly less because it has been years,” Chism said.
The program took place on the first floor, with people seated among five tables, plus some others watching from outside the room.
In one corner in the room, there was a small kitchen area where about five people cooked during the performances.
The two hour program, which lasted from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., included performances by a gospel praise dance group, a men’s choir, a singer and a short skit on bus segregation written by Chism
“I’ve written skits at the previous celebrations but this is the first about bus segregation,” she said.
The five minute skit included two women portraying African American bus passengers in the 1950s who refused to sit at the back of the bus.
“I’m tired of white people telling us what to do,” said one of the actresses as the two women sat in the “front seats.”
A male portraying the bus driver then told them to “move to the back of the bus” and called a “policewoman” who arrested them.
The skit ended with both women becoming “free.” Though the audience enjoyed some laughs, politician Elizabeth Coggs- Jones later spoke and said this was a serious matter in the past.
“This wasn’t funny when Rosa Parks was forced to sit in the back seats of the bus,” she said.
Coggs-Jones spoke for about 15 minutes on the importance of Black History Month and what it means to her family.
“I was a county supervisor in this district many years ago and have retired from politics,” she said.
She then said her late father, Isaac N. Coggs, was the first black county supervisor of Milwaukee and someone once referred to her family as the “Black Kennedys” during a meeting she attended as a county supervisor years back.
“Before he graduated college, he started the first chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi,” she began.
“He graduated in 1948 from UW Madison with a double major in agriculture and economics, hoping to go back to Oklahoma to do farming, but he didn’t go back.”
She later said she has held about 10 jobs throughout her life.
Her most memorable position was teaching second grade in an underperforming Milwaukee public school.
“The students came through the door traumatized.
The food I knew growing up wasn’t the food they knew.
For them, a ‘treat’ was Doritos from the corner gas station,” she said. She then explained why it’s important to teach today’s generation about Black History Month.
“Today’s little ones don’t know about our history or have things to be proud of, which is we should share our history.
They’re not exposed to things today that are a part of our culture,” she said, citing “sagging pants” as an example.
The IDC Men Singers gospel group performed twice.
One of the IDC singers spoke right before the groups’ first performance. “Sometimes, it takes the rough way or the tough love way to teach young people the truth about our history, even if the truth hurts,” he said.
Towards the end of the event, Chism gave her closing remarks and introduced Alderman Bob Bauman and Monique Kelly, who are competing for alderman in that district.
“I don’t know who to vote for because I like them both,” Chism laughed. She also thanked Coggs- Jones, saying the work she did in the community is important.
“She did what she could while she could,” she said, adding they have known each other for more than 40 years.
Finally, everyone stood up and sang the Black National Anthem and residents formed a line to enjoy a feast which included mac ‘n cheese, cornbread, pasta salad, pork and beans, desserts and more.
“I am happy with the outcome. I gathered as many residents as I could in one room for this celebration,” said Chism.