African American icons talk about the past and future at local college

A multi-generational crowd of about 300 packed a Prince George’s County Community College auditorium Thursday to listen to a slate of African American luminaries discuss overcoming adversity and how the pursuit of education fueled their success.

The event, titled “A Legacy of Change, Excellence Unleashed,” featured former New York Mayor David Dinkins, actor Malcom-Jamal Warner and former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders and was hosted by Johnnetta Cole, director of the National Museum of African Art. Camille Cosby , wife of comedian Bill Cosby, who has been hopscotching across the country to bring black leaders together for similar discussions, served as the evening’s moderator.

The “intergenerational conversation,” was designed to bring a range of successful African Americans together and discuss their paths to success and inspire young people in the crowd to follow their dreams.

“The young and the old need to communicate to each other,” said Cosby. She is moderating the forums as part of the National Visionary Leadership Project, an initiative she started in 2001 to get young African Americans to hear the lessons of their elders. “The old, their stories will reflect the history of America and the young need to be valued because they are missing that in their lives.”

Other participants included civil rights veteran Robert Moses, who was the field secretary of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Bonnie St. John, a Harvard graduate and Rhode Scholar who medaled at the 1984 Paralympics.

Prince George’s Community College president Charlene Dukes talks about having Camille Cosby, former New York Mayor David Dinkins and Malcolm-Jamal Warner at the school as part of the National Visionary Leadership Project. (Hamil R. Harris/The Washington Post)

During the program, Elders, who served as surgeon general for President Clinton, talked about growing up in rural Arkansas in a home with many siblings and few role models. “I never saw a doctor until I went to Philander Smith College. You can’t be what you can’t see. I said ‘If I ever got out of this cotton patch, I am going to help my brothers and sisters.’”

She added that what got her through being one of a few African Americans in her medical school class was a laser-like focus on being the best. She said she told herself: “I didn’t come to the University of Arkansas to eat with whites. I came to be a good doctor.”

In addition to talking about her humble beginnings, Elders was also asked about how she felt about being terminated by President Clinton for supporting the distribution of contraceptives in schools. She said she doesn’t regret her position, adding: “The best contraception in the world is getting a good education.”

Many of the young people were moved by the sentiments of the accomplished African Americans on stage.

“It was extremely important for me to take part in this event because I got to speak for my peers and I have always looked up to these people that I am meeting with today,” said Joy Applewhite, a sophomore at Prince George’s Community College, who took part in the event along with fellow student Phillippa Palmer. Both students fielded tough questions from Cosby about the current generation of young people.

While St. Johns talked about overcoming an abusive childhood and losing a leg, the most compelling exchange of the evening came when Cosby questioned Warner, about playing Bill Cosby’s fictional son, Theo, on “The Cosby Show”. Camille Cosby said in terms of programing today, “The Cosby bar has been lowered into the gutter ,” and Warner said when it comes to the programing, “the producers don’t care about quality and unfortunately the audience doesn’t either.”

At the opening of the program, Coles, the former President of Spelman University, who is chairman of the National Visionary Leadership Project, said the national conversations and dialogues are import to have because, “You can’t know where you going until you know where you have been.”

Hamil Harris is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of The Washington Post.
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