Two choirs marched down the center aisle of a Northeast Baltimore church yesterday, stirring the crowd with a spirited rendition of a familiar old tune.
Choristers from Northwood-Appold United Methodist Church and from the city Police Department had the audience clapping and singing "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine" along with them. The lyrics set the tone for a celebration that would launch Black History Month, a February tradition that dates to 1926.
"They sung our hearts happy," said Del. Keith E. Haynes, master of ceremonies. He thanked the crowd of about 200, which included Mayor Martin O'Malley, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and many city and state officials, for braving the bitter cold. The soulful hymns, Scripture readings and stirring speeches inspired and warmed everyone to the point where "we will be able to melt the snow," Haynes said.
Patricia C. Jessamy, state's attorney for Baltimore, organized the gathering, whose theme was "I had a dream and I accomplished it." With a program of shared stories, she aimed to promote "mutual respect for backgrounds" and to show youth that "a noble heritage is in their hands."
"We need Black History Month more than ever," Jessamy said. "I see every day a generation that has no clue of its heritage. There are a great many young people out there who are not registered to vote and who have no idea the sacrifice their ancestors made to ensure them a right to vote."
Those who had overcome adversity, poverty and deprivation could also inspire, she said.
"There is a lot to be said for telling stories," she said. "It is how history is passed on. With these stories, we can spur a sense of togetherness and understanding across racial lines."
So a congressman told of his elementary school years relegated to special-education classes. The president of the City Council recalled a first-grade teacher whose cruel taunts only steeled her resolve to succeed. And Jessamy said her childhood in segregated Mississippi -- where her family battled for civil rights -- taught her that faith, education and hard work can produce wonders.
"You become better, not bitter," she said.
Cummings, who followed Jessamy to the pulpit, said her story shows how people can overcome difficulties and use their experiences to help others.
"In order to grow, you gotta go through some pain," said Cummings, the son of uneducated parents who taught him lifelong values. He added, "The question is not what happened to you but what you do with what happened to you."
Cummings had the crowd applauding when he said, "The biggest threat to our national security is our failure to educate our children."
The stories of another generation's trials "should lift our children up so they can say, 'I can do it, too,'" he said.
A teacher once called City Council President Sheila Dixon an ugly child who would "amount to nothing." Dixon earned a master's degree, taught in city schools and then sought office, so she could "make a difference for young people."
"You can't make excuses for yourself," she said. "Remove 'can't' from your vocabulary."
Asked what she took away from the celebration, city resident Betsy Gardner said, "Unity and hope. We have to work together as Baltimoreans."