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Flint, MI— Mayor Sheldon Neeley bestowed the City of Flint Ujima Awards to seven “trailblazers” in honor of their work and leadership in the Flint community.
Ujima is the third principle of Kwanzaa which means “collective work and responsibility.”
“It’s Black History Month, so I thought it would be appropriate to honor the trailblazers of African American descent in our community…so we can reflect on all the great works they have done,” Neeley said during a Feb. 24, 2021 event featuring the seven honorees. “Each of the honorees have played a role in my life and they probably played a role in everybody’s life in this community.”
The award recipients gathered in the auditorium of the former Bunche Elementary School turned Flint Development Center.
For many of them, this private event was the first they’d been to since the pandemic hit. It was worth it, they agreed, to be there and receive this honor.
Dr. Nathel Burtley
Dr. Burtley was Flint’s first Black superintendent of Flint Community Schools. Neeley said he gave him his first job in the school district in secondary education, which helped him build his confidence.
“We want to make sure that we honor his legacy, and the work that he’s done in education of our community,” Neeley said.
Dr. Burtley died in 2020 from COVID-19. His wife, Kathy, accepted the award on his behalf.
“From the time he got here, he felt like Flint was home and he made it home for him,” she said. “…but he never talked about the hard work he did, because every step that he took, he did it with love and compassion and he loved the Flint community schools and the boys and girls.”
Burks was a leader in Flint-Genesee Economic Development, and the first African American International UAW Secretary-Treasurer.
“We talk about collective work, collective bargaining, making sure everybody’s treated fairly across the board,” Neeley said. “…never a better champion that we ever had, Ruben Burks.”
Dr. Larry Young, Burks’ son, accepted the award and said when he thought about his father, he thought about the word ‘legacy.’
“He was the rock of our family. He left a legacy of hard work,” Young said.
Burk’s grandson, Martin Young, was at the event as well.
“My dad spoke on the professional side of his community work, but he was just as diligent as a family man,” he said. “He was a man of few words, but he let u know that he was proud of us, he loved us, and he only accepted excellence from us.”
Magee served as the Executive Director of the City of Flint Human Relations Commission (HRC) for 11 years, and 16 years as a Community organizer and Neighborhood Service Center Manager for the Urban Coalition and Flint NIPP.
Neeley called Magee a “gentle soul, a sweet person,” and a “kind-hearted individual.”
Magee said she worked to ensure the HRC was included in the City’s charter and called it “the soul of the city.”
“Not only did it work for human and civil rights, but it also worked for equity…for families who couldn’t get their water on, or didn’t have heat during the winter, and so forth,” she said. “…and so I am just so pleased today to be honored for doing a job that I truly loved.”
Bryant is the founder and former owner of the historic Bryant’s Barber Shop, and founder of the Greater Flint African American Sports Hall of Game.
When he accepted his honor Bryant said he was at a loss for words because he would “rather be doing something for someone else, rather than having someone else do something” for him.
He also spoke about the importance of educating people about Black history.
“We need to teach Black history in every school in the city. You know, the NAACP used to fight to get jobs, fight to get positions…we need to start fighting,” Bryant said. “Because history is what we’re made of, and it’s always been said that people shall perish for their lack of knowledge…Flint is rich in history.”
Floyd and Brenda Clack
Neeley introduced these two as Flint’s power couple.
“We know Jay Z has Beyonce. We know Barack has Michelle. And we also know that Floyd has Brenda,” Neeley said.
Floyd and Brenda Clack both served as Genesee County Commissioners and State Representatives for Michigan. They also worked in education and social justice advocacy.
Brenda Clack spoke about how she helped write the program and select the book to be used to teach Black history in schools, and the bills she sponsored to ban smoking indoors, and help foster children.
Floyd Clack shared the story of how he and Brenda met, with a little help from her on the details.
They both said they were so thankful to have ended up in Flint, although it wasn’t the plan for either of them originally.
“This city has afforded Floyd and I so many positive things,” Brenda said.
Davis was Flint’s first African-American firefighter for the City of Flint Fire Department, and served as the only Black firefighter in the department for 15 years, from 1961 to 1975.
Neeley said when he called Davis to ask if he would accept this honor, he found out that he was actually very close friends with Neeley’s late grandfather.
Davis, 88, spoke about his life growing up in poverty, serving in the military, moving to Flint, working for General Motors and eventually working at the fire department.
“With me, as a child growing up in the slums…I didn’t know anything about segregation, because my parents never talked about it,” Davis said. “…I didn’t realize that I was being discriminated against, it was just a way of life until later on I began to learn these situations that existed.”
He spoke about the fact that discrimination and racism still exists today, with “bad apples” in America who try to perpetuate these things and halt progress. To eradicate these problems, Davis said Black history needs to be taught 365 days a year.
“Regardless of how bleak the future may appear to be, stand together with the good apples from that bushel. The bad ones, pay them no attention,” he said. “You see all of the trust and prejudice that I had to endure, it didn’t change my appetite for apples. I still like apples. I just toss the bad ones out.”