LUMBERTON — Less than 24 hours after the NAACP recognized the achievements of influential black figures from across the nation, Sandy Grove Baptist Church held its own, slightly smaller version of the Image Awards in Lumberton.
During the church’s 11th annual awards event on Feb. 23, seven Robeson County residents were handed plaques honoring their extensive contributions in the areas of education, medicine, law, business and community service.
This year’s recipients were Shanita Wendette Wooten, a member of the Delta Kappa Gamma Society International for Educators, in education; Melvin Echols, director of the Duke Cardiology Clinic, in medicine; John “Big Wayne” Robinson, member of Lumberton City Council, in law and politics; Wixie Devone Stephens, co-owner of United Professional Services Insurance Company and Consulting Agency, in business; and James Moore Sr., former director of human resources for the city of Lumberton, in public service.
Demetri Sheridan, a football player and senior at Lumberton High School, was declared a “Student of Excellence,” while Robert DeLane Shaw, a former member of Lumberton City Council, was presented with a lifetime achievement award.
“We want to celebrate and honor contributions to our cultural, economic, educational and spiritual development,” said Abe Marshall, the master of ceremonies and chairman of the Black History Committee. “The Image Awards have no restriction toward age, gender or color.”
The celebration, which was part of a series of Black History Month functions at the church, featured performances from the Fairmont High School chorus between the presentation of awards.
“You know, when you can get teenagers to come out on a Sunday afternoon, that’s a wonderful thing,” Marshall said.
Miss Greater North Carolina Comfort Johnson, a senior at Winston-Salem University and a native of Guinea, shared her inspirational story with the crowd of about 70 people gathered in pews at the church.
She was born in 1991 in the midst of Liberia’s first Civil War and her family was shuffled into a refugee camp shortly afterward. Her aunt managed to escape to sanctuary in America as part of a human trafficking ring and made arrangements to bring Johnson and her parents to North Carolina.
After introducing herself to the audience, Johnson launched into an emotionally charged rendition of gospel artist Kirk Franklin’s song “Lean on Me.”
“It’s a song I’ve been singing since I was 6 years old,” said Johnson, who will go on to compete in the state pageant later in the year. Her platform is based around diabetes awareness.
“Whatever this young lady needs, I promised her we would help her in her pursuits,” Marshall said.
Another stirring performance came courtesy of Sathilda Allen, who delivered a dramatic reading of a poem entitled “Why God Made Me Black.”
During the reading, Allen, who has read at each awards ceremony for the past 10 years, pulled out a handheld mirror and read a line from the perspective of God.
“The reflection you see in the mirror; that image you see is me,” she said, prompting applause and cheers of approval from the audience.
The final award of the afternoon was presented to Shaw, who took a moment to express his gratitude to the church.
“I’m so grateful to be here and to have enjoyed everything that has transpired so far,” he said. “This makes me feel like somebody and I’d like to take a moment to thank all the people who put this together.”
Shaw proceeded to implore black youths to treat their elders with courtesy and respect.
“Don’t pass the aged by, be kind to them,” he said.
Shaw also voiced his concerns about the high death and incarceration rates facing young black men.
“We are losing so many of our black boys; so many of them have forgot that we love them,” he said.
Jaymie Baxley can be reached at 910-272-6146, or on Twitter @Jaymie_Baxley