To kick off his keynote address at the 28th annual Unity Luncheon held Thursday, Feb. 8 at Middle Tennessee State University, Franklin County School District Director of Schools Cary E. Holman asked hundreds gathered in the Student Union Ballroom to take a test.
“Though we are in a large room, and each of us have our differences, together we can accomplish a substantial amount of things,” the MTSU alumnus and longtime educator said, prompting a lighthearted call and response from those in attendance.
Holman: “I wasn’t born …?” “Yesterday!” the audience replied.
“A mind is a terrible thing …?” “To waste!” — a phrase made ubiquitous by many of years of promotion of the United Negro College Fund.
“Mary had a little …?” “Lamb!” which drew more than a few chuckles as everyone passed the test with resounding responses.
“You mean to tell me I can get in a room with a plethora of individuals coming from different walks of life and we can have the same knowledge about a response?” asked Holman, speaking at this year’s luncheon carrying a theme of “Where There Is Unity, There Is Strength.”
“So that tells me that if we can walk from different neighborhoods, if we can walk and fellowship in different churches, and we drive in different vehicles but yet at the same time have something in common, the best thing I can tell you is we are already unified.”
Although we can appreciate our differences, it’s important to remember that there is power in togetherness and “strength in unity,” said Holman, an ordained minister and associate pastor at Believers Faith Fellowship in Christiana who was a longtime educator and school administrator for Rutherford County Schools before taking over the Franklin County system last year.
University President Sidney A. McPhee offered his traditional welcome to the capacity crowd, saying, “It’s important for us, particularly for these days and times, to have an event that’s called a unity that brings us together regardless of who we are.”
McPhee said he’s often called on to speak at events. But the Unity Luncheon, which started in 1996 and honors “unsung heroes” in the Midstate as part of Black History Month activities at MTSU, is one of his favorites.
“This event is an opportunity for us to recognize those individuals who have made a difference in the lives of so many people and individuals in our community,” McPhee said.
Hosted by the Office of Intercultural and Diversity Affairs, under the direction of Danielle Rochelle, the Unity Luncheon pays homage to the community’s unsung heroes who were chosen by the university’s Black History Month Committee. Emcee for the event was Ron Malone, vice president of Events and Transportation at MTSU.
Watch a short video recap below:
Community heroes honored
Honorees are age 50 or older who have resided in the Middle Tennessee area for 20 years or more and have made outstanding contributions to the community in a variety of categories. To date, there have been 140 unsung heroes honored — with six more added to the list this year. This year’s honorees include:
Education — MTSU alumni Edd Hill, Stanley Murphy and Collier Woods co-founded the Kool Club in 1974 with four other friends to exercise philanthropy within the community. In 1981, the Kool Club Scholarship was established to provide financial assistance to a Black freshmen college students.
Contribution to Black Arts (Posthumous) — The late MTSU alumna Johnie Payton, a Wilson County Teacher of the Year and former Wilson County Board of Education member, was founding member of the Evermean Evergreen Cloggers. She also served on the Tennessee State/Wilson County Fair Board, where she hired performing groups and artists. She died in 2022. Bryanna Payton, niece of the honoree, and former student Gerald Patton accepted the award on behalf of the late educator.
Community Service — Sharonese Henderson is a powerful advocate for girls and women in STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math. A member of the Women in STEM Council at MTSU and participant at the MTSU Tennessee Girls in STEM hands-on event, Henderson has served as a high school mentor through the tnAchieves program and volunteers regularly with organizations that foster educational opportunities for young women. She is also president of the Adams Memorial Scholarship.
Advocate of Civility — MTSU alumna Patricia Waire Harlan has spent four decades in higher education, which has led to numerous professional awards at Columbia State Community College, and recognition as a Leadership Maury County scholar and Tennessee Board of Regents Maxine Smith Fellow. She also held leadership roles in civic organizations and served as a mentor with tnAchieves.
This year marks the first time the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame joined the celebration honoring three prominent Tennesseans who were inducted posthumously at the 2023 awards. Honorees spotlighted at the Unity Luncheon include Ida B. Wells, Robert Churchwell and Bill Hall.
Wells, who died in 1931, was one of America’s first investigative journalists and co-owned and wrote for the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper. An early leader in the civil rights movement, Wells was a suffragette and one of the founders of the NAACP. In 2020, she was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on violence against African Americans.
In 1950, Churchwell became the first Black journalist at the Nashville Banner and covered education, although it took five years before he was given a desk in the newsroom due to the practice of segregation. He was the first Black member of the Middle Tennessee chapter of Sigma Delta Chi, now the society of Professional Journalists, and a founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists. He retired from the Banner in 1981 and died in 2009.
Bill Hall was a beloved weatherman and news anchor for Nashville’s WSMV-TV, where he was known for his calm on-air presence and a favorite among schoolchildren for his partnership with “Snowbird” to deliver school closings. In addition to weather-related content, Hall discussed gardening, cooking, hunting and fishing with audiences. He also hosted “Land and Lakes,” an outdoors show. He retired in 2005 and died six years later.
You can view the full 2024 Unity Luncheon program.
— Nancy DeGennaro (Nancy.DeGennaro@mtsu.edu)