In a time of national awakening on Women's issues and empowerment, it was timely and appropriate that two of the keynote speakers leading Black History Month activities locally happened to be two highly accomplished and powerful public servants, both African American women with southern Arkansas Roots.
In a time of national awakening on Women’s issues and empowerment, it was timely and appropriate that two of the keynote speakers leading Black History Month activities locally happened to be two highly accomplished and powerful public servants, both African American women with southern Arkansas Roots.
On Monday morning, Hope native Doris Pryor, a United States Magistrate Judge-designate and a current National Security Unit Chief for the United States Attorney’s Office, took the stage at Hempstead Hall before an audience of several hundred high school and middle school students as well as community leaders.
The previous Thursday night, it was Arkansas State Senator Joyce Elliott, also in Hempstead Hall, as the lead speaker of the UAHT Multicultural Club’s Black History program. Elliott is a native of Nevada County and graduated from Willisville High School. Elliott is a former Majority Leader of the Arkansas State Senate, and she has a statewide following as a principal in the state Democratic Party.
Pryor, who previously graduated from Hope High School and the University of Central Arkansas, spoke Monday of the many life lessons she learned growing up in Hope, going to Hope High School, and being a member of its band.
“These are life lessons I learned and take with me every day,” Pryor said.
Pryor freely engaged students and answered questions from them, mostly about her education and career, for over 30 minutes.
“It took me four years for college; I went to the University of Central Arkansas for four years, and after that, I took a year off before law school, working right here in Hope, and after that, I went for three years in law school at Indiana University,” she said.
Pryor said she only lost two trials throughout her career, but she said “Your defeats stick with you a lot longer than your wins.”
Pryor said she became a lawyer because as a youngster, “I got beat up,” she recalled.
“I got beat up in first grade; first grade was traumatic. I realized I wasn’t going to get any bigger, but I still liked fighting for other people. I didn’t like getting pushed around, but I knew my fists weren’t the answer. I said I am going to always use this (pointing to her head) to defeat my enemies, and I’ve done that ever since,” she said.
Pryor also talked about a terrorism briefing she had with the President on a National Security matter, in which she was asked if she was prepared; she replied “Yeah, I’ve got it; I’m from Hope.”
Like Pryor, Elliott graduated from college twice, but a little closer to home with an undergraduate degree from SAU in Magnolia and a graduate degree from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia.
In her speech on Thursday night, Elliott emphasized involvement by young people in politics and the political process, and she said many aspects of daily life in the Arkansas often come down to politics, so their voices need to be heard.
“The quality of highways you drive? It is politics. The kind of schools we have in the state? It is politics. The funding that keeps the doors to this university here in Hope open? It comes down to politics. Politics is important; politics does matter. What is happening in national and state politics today can be discouraging, but that can’t stop people from being involved, it can’t stop people from making their voices heard,” she said.
“When these decisions are made, we need people in the discussion. Are these conversations uncomfortable sometimes? They are, but these are conversations that need to happen, whether it be about race, funding, Medicaid or education. It is about what Arkansas is, and what we want it to be in the future,” Elliott said.
“And why do we have Black History? Why do we still observe a ‘Black History Month’? I believe every generation has a responsibility to move ahead, but in order to do so, it is necessary to know what has come before,” she said.
Elliott recalled that “Black History Month” was originally conceived as “Negro History Week” in February 1926 by Carter G. Woodson after becoming one of the first African Americans to receive a doctorate from Harvard.
“In all those years of school, he realized he learned little of his own history, almost as if it didn’t exist,” she said.
And Elliott also noted that it wasn’t until 1969 that “Black History Month” evolved to what is known today, and it was finally officially declared by then-President Gerald Ford in 1976.
“When you think about that, in the context of thousands of years of history, it wasn’t that long ago,” she said.