Coretta Scott King. Michelle Obama. Maya Angelou.
Portraits of African American icons lined the entrance, each passing figure a preview to the event to come.
Passing through the hallowed entryway, hundreds filled Marjorie Luke Theater on Sunday for Visions of Hope’s 10th Annual Black History Month Worship and Celebration Service. In the wake of an election, this year’s event gave tribute to something African Americans still fight for equal access to today – the vote.
“People have survived so you can sit in the chairs you’re sitting in right now, so you go outside to get fresh air and do the things you do,” said Paul Purter, Jr., master of ceremonies. “We want to give tribute to life and to the vote. We want to make sure that you got your word in.”
But this service honored more than activism amidst a looming primary. 2020 marks the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment and culmination of the women’s suffrage movement. 150 years later, 2020 is also the sesquicentennial of the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), when African American men secured their place on the ballot following the Civil War.
In this way, Visions of Hope celebrated hard-earned political success despite disenfranchisement and inequality. From live music to dance troupes, the event truly was a celebration, with performers and audience members alike proud to honor just how much times have changed.
Before the event had begun, musicians on stage brought visitors to their feet, cheers growing louder with each successive key change. Later, African Americans’ long history with suffrage materialized through a hip hop-inspired puppet show.
And while Visions of Hope honored what had been accomplished, they attributed that success to an often overlooked group of changemakers – African American women.
“Black women are our north star,” said Rev. Dr. David N. Moore, Jr., guest speaker. “These are women that embrace their blackness completely. Who do not only relish in their own skin tone, their hair texture, their physique, but most important of all they embrace the journey. Like few others, they know how real the struggle is.”
To recognize the power African American women hold and have held for decades, Mr. Moore began his speech by repeating the words of Sojourner Truth.
“’That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches and to have the best place everywhere,’” Mr. Moore echoed. “’Nobody ever helps me into carriages or over mud puddles or gives me any best place. And ain’t I a woman?’”
The activist’s speech served as a backdrop to Mr. Moore’s message – African American women have a voice, and we all should listen.
As he continued, the reverend summarized a long record of obstacles in the way of suffrage, a struggle he argued persists today.
To show how conditions may have changed, or stayed the same, Mr. Moore looked back to his parents, who were born in North Carolina long before the Civil Rights Movement. At that time, one-third of the state population was African American, though that wasn’t reflected in those who populated the government.
“No black congresspersons. No black governors. No black mayors. No black police. No black police chiefs or sheriffs,” he said. “Think about that. One in three taxpayers in the state were black, but they were underrepresented.”
“The problem was voter suppression,” Mr. Moore continued. “One of the ways North Carolina, like other southern states, stopped African Americans from having any political voice was the primary.”
According to Mr. Moore, this is a problem that hasn’t gone away. Prior to the 2016 election, 158 polling places across North Carolina were permanently closed in 40 countries with the most African American voters, he said.
Mr. Moore went on to highlight other instances of voter suppression in states like Georgia, Virginia and Ohio. While he cited studies and news reports of longer lines for people of color and removal of voters altogether, Mr. Moore reconciled his speech with a piece of hope.
“We made it through,” he said. “This afternoon, we are remembering our ancestors. We are reclaiming our rightful past. We are reaching back to capture the courage, the hope, the ingenuity, the shed blood of agony, the forced separation, the humiliation of our forefathers and foremothers.”
To him, there was no better way to reclaim that past than celebrating African American women, who he believes have led the path towards change since the start. Making that impact visible, Mr. Moore called out inspiring women one by one, asking the audience to stand when they recognized someone who had been personally influential.
Simone Biles. Ida B. Wells. Bernice King. The names went on and on. Soon, the whole audience stood. But the service honored more than public figures. At the conclusion of Mr. Moore’s speech, Visions of Hope brought 14 honorees to the stage, eight of whom were women.
One of those women was Agatha Shorter Lewis, a UCSB graduate and lifetime member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Since 1975, she has assisted with the rehabilitation of countless youth in Santa Barbara County as a Deputy Probation Officer.
Another honoree included Khalilah Camille Durias, who is politically and philanthropically active in Ventura. Currently, she serves as the first African American woman President of the Greater Oxnard Organization of Democrats and the fifth District Representative to the Ventura County Democratic Central Committee.
Yet the example African American women have set goes beyond those recognized on stage. In fact, it includes Lillian Pipersburg, who took over Visions of Hope when her husband and founder Phillip passed away two years ago. With the help of her daughter Candice, Lillian fulfilled a vision that had been a long time coming.
“My husband started this ten years ago with the help of my youngest daughter,” said Lillian. “He always said from the beginning it was bigger than him, and we’re just excited to deliver that message.”
While this year might be Visions of Hope’s last, the mother-daughter duo couldn’t have thought of a better way to end.
“Being raised in Santa Barbara, it’s an honor to have this event for African Americans here,” said Candice. “It’s important to show the new, younger generation what it’s like to be supportive of one another and to stand up as a community.”