By Megan Wehring
KYLE – When a petition to get Texas State University to offer a Black history class in the 1990s was successful, Johnnie Wilson was one of the first students to take the course.
Wilson was part of a Kyle panel discussing the importance of Black history month and why education is the root to understanding.
Kyle hosted the first dialogue in a series of three on Friday to commemorate Black History Month. It is aimed at providing a platform for community members and leaders to participate in open, honest conversations about a specific topic or issue. During the Feb. 5 meeting, 10 people joined the conversation, giving diverse opinions as to why residents still need to recognize Black History Month.
Moderator Dex Ellison started off the conversation with this burning question: What does Black history mean to you?
“As African Americans, we were left out of history for a very long time,” answered Kyle resident Vanessa Westbrook. “There were gaps and the big reason for that was we actually didn’t have a way of documenting anything. There was a time when we couldn’t read and write in this country.”
Westbrook wears many hats in the Hays community: election judge, historical commission member and chair of the African American Heritage Committee. She is also the former chair of the West Ranch to Market 150 Committee and former lecturer at Texas State University.
Westbrook explained that the Black community now has the ability to be educated, there are new discoveries of what happened in history. Though it may not have been documented, the Black community was present during that time.
“When I think of Black history, I think of respecting the past, reflecting on the past and now bringing the past to light so that others can get that information and we can pass it along,” Westbrook said.
Pastor Marquet Curl pondered on the question and said only word comes to mind when he thinks of Black history — frustration.
“History can be shaped based upon the lens in which it is spoken through or from,” Curl said. “Unfortunately, there is a lot of history that doesn’t come from the perspective of an African American male in this country. … The history and identity was taken away from us.”
Hays CISD teacher Grace Bohannon Castañeda said education is a key component in today’s current climate.
“It is so important to know the history that has come before us so that we do not repeat it,” Castañeda said. “It is so important that we educate, not only ourselves as adults, but our children and have truthful conversation. Rewrite our history books. Rewrite our textbooks. Put everyone in textbooks.”
Friday’s dialogue concluded with discussion on the relevance of Black History Month and how it is celebrated today.
If there is no push from the community to celebrate Black history, there may be little to no action taken, Westbrook said. She specifically highlighted proclamations adopted by the Hays County Commissioner Court and local cities, along with events that the community are invited to throughout the month of February.
Black History Month paves a way for people who are not part of the Black community to learn about their peers and become more aware, Kyle Mayor Travis Mitchell said.
“The older I get, the more I start looking at my own history and see the world as being a little bit bigger than the world I was raised in,” Mitchell said. “[Black History Month] forces awareness upon people who otherwise would prefer not to be aware. Many of the types of holidays we discuss here and have been discussing are not holidays or seasons where many people think very much of it.”
Lockhart council member Derrick “David” Bryant agreed that without a designated month to honor Black history, some would not be educated. Bryant also said people still need to be educated on the importance of the contributions that the Black community has made throughout history.
“Without Black History Month, some people would not learn about Black history,” Bryant said. “Some people that are African American would not learn without Black History Month. It’s needed because when people say Black Lives Matter and you get the response that All Lives Matter, that means Black History Month is still needed.”
This year, the city of Kyle purposely placed young individuals on the panel to allow an even more diverse perspective. Aaron Taylor, student at the University of Texas at Austin, agreed with all the panelists that education is key.
“After the murder of George Floyd, people were saying ‘I never knew all of this stuff,’” Taylor said. “People are still seeing stuff on TV. It’s a shame that’s how they were introduced to this but there’s still more education that’s needed.”
Panelists gave some final thoughts on the importance of the dialogue series.
“There’s so many other perspectives that aren’t being taken into play whenever learning about this or talking to people,” said Levi Griffith, 16-year-old junior at Lehman High School. “I just think that a setting like this allows for more openness and open-mindedness.”
Communities outside of Hays County may not be as open to conducting a dialogue similar to this, IT Helpdesk technician Adrian Gooden explained.
“In the two towns that I grew up in, I can’t really imagine something like this happening that could be honest and truthful,” Gooden said. “So the fact that we are all sitting here right now is inspiring.”
Other panelists included Richard Dixon, president of the Kyle Youth Football Association, and Jonnie Wilson, nationally board-certified counselor and advocate for marginalized students.
Kyle will host two more dialogues later this year for Juneteenth (June 19) and another in October for Hispanic Heritage Month.