By Tom Travis
Mayor Sheldon Neeley called them “trailblazers” in the African-American community of Flint as he honored seven at a presentation on Wednesday, Feb 24.
The event, at the Flint Development Center on Martin Luther King Boulevard, was closed except to the honorees, city officials and the media, but can be viewed at the City of Flint’s Facebook page.
The honorees were presented the “Mayor Sheldon A. Neeley City of Flint Ujima Award” and a key to the city. According to a press release from the mayor’s office, it is Flint’s highest honor. Ujima, pronounced [oo-JEE-mah] is the third priniciple of Kwanzaa and means “collective work and responsibility,” according to the press release.
“We honor these individuals for their leadership, for their bold and steadfast commitment to our community, and for their willingness to forge new paths and open doors for future generations. We honor them and their work to build better neighborhood sand stronger families, not just during Black History Month, but every day,” Mayor Neeley stated in the press release.
The honorees were:
Dr. Nathel Burtley (posthumous) the longest serving and first Black superintendent of Flint Community Schools. Burtley’s wife, Kathy Burtley, accepted the award.
Burtley explained, “We lost Nat one week before Easter Sunday in April 2020. He passed from COVID-19.” Burtley added that her husband was in the hospital for three weeks. “I felt isolated from him…it felt like doomsday,” she said.
Burtley spoke about her husband’s passion for children and schools. She said, “Every time I look at a school building, I think of him.”
Thanking the mayor and the City of Flint, she ended, “This award feels like a big bear hug that I need.”
Ruben Burks (posthumous) A longtime community labor activist, Burks was a leader in Flint-Genesee Economic Development, a cooperative effort by labor and business. In 1998, he became the first African-American International UAW Secretary-Treasurer.
Burks’ award was presented to his son, Larry Young, and grandson Omari Young. Larry Young spoke, emphasizing that the legacy of his father is important. He remembered hearing his father often say, “What about the workers? What about the people?”
Young reminisced that his father came up to Flint from “the impoverished Deep South” as his father “wanted something more, something better for his family.”
Burks’ grandson Omari Young recounted his grandfather saying, “When society said, ‘you can’t do it’ he always said, ‘you can do it.”
Cleora Magee, a 57-year resident of Flint, served for 11 years as executive director of the City of Flint Human Relations Commission, and for 16 years as community organizer and Neighborhood Service Center manager for the Urban Coalition and Flint NIPP (Neighborhood Improvement and Preservation Project).
Recounting the many leadership positions she’s held in Flint, Magee commented, “I’ve always said that the Human Relations Commission is the soul of the city.”
Magee acknowledged her long-time friend and co-worker, Alice Rutherford’s recent passing, and her involvement in establishing Flint neighborhood block clubs.
Norm Bryant, founder and former owner of the historic Bryant’s Barber Shop, also founded the Greater Flint African American Sports Hall of Fame for Black athletes from the Flint area.
Bryant said of his life of service in the community, “The Bible speaks of hearers and doers. I’m a doer. I’d rather be doing something for someone else rather than someone else doing something for me.”
Bryant, referring to Black history, emphasized, “We need to know our history. We need to teach Black history in the schools. History is what we’re made of. Flint is rich in history.”
Floyd and Brenda Clack were the only couple to be presented the award. Both served as Genesee County Commissioners and State Representatives for the State of Michigan. Neeley introduced them as a “powerhouse couple.”
Brenda Clack recalled teaching Black history studies at Central and Northwestern schools and how she chose the textbooks for the course. She added, “We have to stop fighting each other. We have to recognize the ‘plusses’ and not the ‘minuses’.”
The final honoree was Joe Davis, Flint’s first African-American firefighter for the City of Flint Fire Department. Davis worked from 1961-1975 as the only Black firefighter in the department for almost 15 years before the next person of color was hired in.
In his remarks, Davis, 88, recalled he came to Flint from Macon, Mississippi in 1956 and thought the city was “so small.” Davis joined the military after graduating high school. Davis turned while he spoke and proudly saluted the American flag painted on a mural on the gymnasium wall. “I like to salute the American flag,” he said.
Davis said there has always been something within him calling him to move on, move forward. Davis thanked the city of Flint “for giving him so much”. Davis recalled how he took construction classes and glass blowing classes which were funded by the Mott Foundation and how these opportunities “helped my family,” said Davis.
Referring to a phrase he has used in recent months, Neeley said Flint is at “an intersection of crisis” with a water crisis, social upheaval for social justice and the world-wide pandemic.
“It’s easy to look at Flint and see a city of victims, but we are more than victims–we are victors,” Neeley said. “This group that has been selected today has a special DNA and we need to resurrect that group of victors. It’s going to take all of us to fight.”
About 25 city officials and visitors sat in the bleachers on the back wall of the gymnasium while socially distanced groups of two and four chairs were spaced on the gym floor for the presentation. The mayor and honorees spoke from a podium that stood between two tables with black tablecloths where the awards were displayed. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution were printed on large poster boards displayed near the podium as well.
EVM Managing Editor Tom Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.