2018-03-07 / Front Page

Black History Month Celebrated In Queensbridge

By Thomas Cogan

The eighth annual Black History Month celebration took place as usual near that month’s end.  Once again it was held at the Jacob Riis Settlement House in Queensbridge and was once again hosted by City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer.  Bob Madison, associate executive director at Jacob Riis, formally introduced the councilman, who’d already been schmoozing with the crowd for several minutes.  He got a favorably loud greeting, as if he’d just burst through the doorway.  During the evening, he presented awards to nine individuals, for meritorious service.  To a tenth, Commander Assistant Chief Juanita Holmes of Patrol Borough Queens North, he presented a Distinguished Public Service award.  There was good food provided by Coffeed (but no coffee), music and poetry from a couple of stars of The Lion King and dance from the many members of Precise Dance Studio.

The councilman played to the crowd before turning to the evening’s agenda, first by asking, “Don’t you really miss Barack Obama?”; then prompting a cheer for his old elementary school, P.S. 11, confident that at least the clutch of current PS 11 students in attendance would respond, as they did; and finally, saluting his mother (in the house for the occasion), who got a truly genuine cheer, for her long and close association with Queensbridge.  

After a resonant invocation by Patricia Fletcher, Jelani Remy, one of the stars of the Broadway version of The Lion King, made his appearance, first to assist in the annual singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” this year’s principal singer being Marion Jeffries. 

He then accepted an award and delivered a song of his own, which he said was addressed to a younger generation.  In it, he urged its people to endure injustice as they must but work to change it too.  Van Bramer recalled singing “Over the Rainbow” with Remy and many others last year at City Hall, in a rally to protest President Trump’s severe reduction of federal funding for the arts, mention of which caused the only boos of the evening to briefly rise.  He gave the award, a framed City Council Proclamation, to the singer, who told the audience that nobody could know how much it meant to him.

The next such award went to Ka-Trina Harris, treasurer of Community Education Council District 30, who spoke a few words of gratitude before being overcome by emotion.  She was followed by Marion Smith, a youth worker at Woodside Houses, where his activities include a basketball tournament for at-risk kids.  He said he appreciated what was done for him when he was younger, citing as a mentor a man who helped him get into Christ the King High School.  “And he’s my mentor to this day,” Smith said.

L. Steven Taylor is also in The Lion King, as King Mufasa.  He also sang at that City Hall protest last year.  After receiving his award and expressing appreciation, he said he grew up in Indianapolis and at last “got out” but said he goes back each year to reunite with contemporaries and inspire younger ones to succeed.  Later in the evening he returned to recite a poem he had written, “You Look Like Me.”  It is both personal and literary, no doubt addressed to his own son, who is 16, but also to other young black persons, and says that resemblance can be both advantageous and perilous in life.  

The Precise Dance Studio in Woodside then performed, to some rousing music that got everybody excited.  Several ages, genders and colors did their steps, though there was a solo performance by one young woman.  The many returned, for a last burst of dance that got them a standing ovation.  Precise’s owner and teacher, Tina Williams, came up for her award and Van Bramer said that two of her sons, Joshua and Jacob, were among the dancers in the troupe.  Then he remembered another son, Malik, who won an award such as this a few years ago, before falling victim to cancer at the age of 19.

The next award was to Gwendolyn Wilson, administrative assistant at the Riis Settlement, a place she has served for 40 years.  There was a critical tone in her acceptance as she expressed the desire that Queensbridge “be like it was before, when it was a community.” She was followed by Ukwan Milliner, called “an artist and aspiring entrepreneur” by Van Bramer, who’d also heard he wanted to make movies and concluded that if he wants to he will.  Milliner has worked at Woodside Houses with Marion Smith, honored earlier.  He introduced his mother, a gesture that Van Bramer just loved.  “Always thank your mother," he said.

It was time to present the Distinguished Public Service Award to Asst. Chief Juanita Holmes.  She joined the police force in July 1987, became a sergeant in 1995 and a lieutenant in 2002.  Thereafter she moved up among the officers until 2016 when she succeeded Asst. Chief Diana Pizzutti as commander of Patrol Borough Queens North.  Van Bramer said he was proud to have her as a constituent, since she lives in Long Island City.  He called her a very hard worker, though someone who could come to his birthday party, as she did once after a long day on duty.

She is a native of Bedford-Stuyvesant and grew up the oldest girl among 12 children.  Having all those younger siblings gave her great training in supervision, she said.  As commander, she might attend a birthday party or two after hours but is definitely a frequent guest at community board meetings and other civic events, both day and night.  She was enthusiastically received, and at one point somebody cried, “Hail to the Chief!”

There were two recipients left, the first of whom was Jamiek Webb, program coordinator at Riis, where he has worked for 10 years.  Van Bramer said he is good at working with and influencing youth, the way other of the night’s honorees—Marion Smith, Steven Taylor and Ukwan Milliner—are.  His words of acceptance had a definite message:  that he likes his work.

The final winner was the first one in alphabetical order, Tiffini Alston.  She is a lifetime resident of Queensbridge.  In 2009 she lost her brother through a violent event and decided to work for a better life locally.  Eventually, 696 Build Queensbridge, 10-31 41st Ave., was formed.  It is a community-based program for young residents, 16 to 24 years of age, working for better relations, safety and stability.  It must be admitted that its recent success, a year without gun violence, was marred by a fatal shooting last May. 

Alston said she was glad to get the award, especially on her birthday.  Having brought her young son to the stage, she left with him hand-in-hand, making the applause all the louder.

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