Black history and culture celebrated at Criminal Court
The Criminal Court Black History Committee hosted a celebration of African culture and African-American history at Brooklyn Criminal Court on Friday.
After the work of the committee and the vision of Judges Ellen Edwards and Claudia Daniels-DePeyster, the court’s lobby was turned into a live art piece, with intricate tapestries hanging from the second floor and a recreation of the Great Migration of freed slaves from the country’s South to the North.
“In the spirit of our connection to West Africa in particular and the continent in general, this place today has been renamed Sankofa Station,” Judge Abena Darkeh said.
Sankofa is one of several African symbols with special meanings to address cultural philosophy, folktale or proverb of the Akan people of Ghana, West Africa, Darkeh said.
Darkeh explained that many — if not most — of the slaves in the U.S. came from West Africa. The institution of slavery steadily chipped away at their cultural background, but some aspects were still passed down — and on Friday, were on display in the courthouse lobby.
“Celebration of Black History Month, as important as it is, is not celebrated everywhere with the vigor that it is in Brooklyn; it’s just not,” said Judge Michael Yavinsky. Yavinsky then initiated the recreation of the Great Migration by sounding off a wooden train whistle.
Jeanessa R. Walker narrated the ceremony, wearing a conductor hat and handing out train tickets to public school students along each stop of the journey.
Historically, the Great Migration came after emancipation of slavery and the introduction of Jim Crow laws that caused freed slaves to endure decades more of violence and inequality. By 1916, African-Americans began to move out of the rural South, according to T. Rasul Murray.
“By 1970, some six million African descendant people had left the agrarian South for the industrial North. This then, was the Great Migration,” Murray said.
Judges Priscilla Hall and Betty Williams shared their personal migration moments with the crowd.
Judge Hall left behind a segregated education system in Texas to come to Chicago with her parents, who were both working in education.
“It was just a year after Brown v. Board, and my father could see the handwriting on the wall,” Hall said, adding that integration would result in the firing of black teachers and closings of black schools in the South.
Judge Williams described moving from South Carolina to New York to help provide a better life for herself and her five siblings.
She worked a laundry list of jobs and graduated from New York Law School, constantly being turned away from positions only to come back and secure them. When she was given the advice to become a judge, she took it and was seated at Brooklyn’s criminal court.
But her judicial position brought back images from her life in South Carolina.
“My first day in arraignment, I see these black, African defendants walk in front of my bench chained with their hands behind them,” Williams said. “I was totally taken aback.”
Speaking briefly, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez expressed the need to make the values of the justice system reflect those of the community.
“When I look at Black History Month and what it means to me … we have so many accomplishments, but we have so many more struggles and that the judicial system and prosecutors and law enforcement have always been used as a tool to hold back African-Americans in this country,” Gonzalez said.
“And that may sound crazy coming from the chief law enforcement officer in this county, but I see all the work that we need to continue to do in this city and here in Brooklyn.”
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