Callaway group reflects on social progress during Celia Commemoration

Taji Braxton, 6, of Fulton lights a candle with the help of her grandmother Carmen Brandt Saturday during the first Jane Bierdeman-Fike Humanitarian Award Program and Celia Commemoration at Backer Dining Hall. Brandt sits on the Fulton Human Rights Commission and was an organizer of the event, which brings the community together to commemorate Celia, a southern Callaway County slave who was hanged for murdering her sexually abusive master. This year was the first time the commission gave the Jane Bierdeman-Fike Humanitarian Award. The recipient of the honor was Nancy McCue of Fulton.

Taji Braxton, 6, of Fulton lights a candle with the help of her grandmother Carmen Brandt Saturday during the first Jane Bierdeman-Fike Humanitarian Award Program and Celia Commemoration at Backer Dining Hall. Brandt sits on the Fulton Human Rights Commission and was an organizer of the event, which brings the community together to commemorate Celia, a southern Callaway County slave who was hanged for murdering her sexually abusive master. This year was the first time the commission gave the Jane Bierdeman-Fike Humanitarian Award. The recipient of the honor was Nancy McCue of Fulton. Photo by Brittany Ruess.

Since the hanging of Celia — a southern Callaway County slave — in 1855, community members pondered how much social advancement has taken place in 159 years during the annual Celia Commemoration on Saturday.

“So where have we come as a society?” Gracia Backer, mistress of ceremonies at the 2014 Celia Commemoration, said. “A society that can communicate in an instant via email or text, that can send an unmanned vehicle to Mars, that can discover the smallest particle of life, and that can accurately determine the age of a six million-year-old dinosaur? Have we truly developed and improved our social mores and our concerns for our fellow men and women during the last 159 years, three months and seven days (since Celia’s death).”

Community members join together once a year to remember Celia, a southern Callaway County slave who was executed after murdering her master, a man who raped her for five years.

Backer continued and talked about former President Jimmy Carter’s recent appearance on the David Letterman show in which he discussed he recent book, “A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power.”

During his appearance, Backer said, Carter stated some startling facts about the current slave trade:

•The slave trade generates $32 million per year globally.

•Every year, the U.S. State Department estimates 800,000 slaves are sold across international borders.

•Of the 640,000 young girls sold as sex slaves, 100,000 are from the United States.

“We are appalled at what happened to an innocent 19-year-old girl, what, 159 years, three months and seven days ago,” Backer said. “We are appalled that she was tortured, she was raped, she was humiliated and she was held in slavery. We think as a a community, state, nation and world that we have changed as a society. Yet in 2014, we really haven’t … Tonight we reflect on a young, innocent girl who lost a battle, but has remained a force in the ongoing war on violence, injustice, pain and suffering.”

As an annual tradition, candles were lit by Carmen Brandt, member of the Fulton Human Rights Commission, and her six-year-old granddaughter, Taji Braxton.

Brandt said she hopes as community conversations continue regarding equality and injustice, that the need for these types of discussions will wain as her granddaughter grows up in what Brandt hopes is a better world.

“(This event) means that people are still listening and wanting change and want things better in the community,” Brandt said. “It means that people’s minds are starting to open about something negative in history and wanting to change and listen to make it right. But, it also means people are interested.”

That night Brandt said she was excited to see Nancy McCue, a Fulton woman dedicated to service, receive the inagural Jane Bierdeman-Fike Humanitarian Award because “all of her accomplishments have been toward the betterment of people, of humankind, of mankind.” McCue has worked with the Kingdom Center for Women’s Ministries, Kingdom Christian Academy and the Community Walks at Guiding Light Missionary Baptist Church. She’s also helped establish a Center for Women’s Ministries in Kibungo, Rwanda where she was a missionary for years.

The award was added this year to the Celia Commemoration to honor a local person striving for change through social or envrionmental justice, economic equality, community building, education or promoting diversity.

Jane Bierdeman-Fike, who the award is named after, was a Fulton social worker who advocated for social and economic issues as well as mental health. She also spearheaded the Celia Commemoration for nine years.

After accepting the award, McCue spoke about injustices she’s seen both near and far.

While a social studies teacher at Fulton Public Schools, McCue said a student of hers — who was black — asked to bring in his uncle’s medals from World War II. The student showed the medals to his classmates and told McCue he couldn’t understand how his uncle could fight for freedom, but be segregated when he returned home to Fulton.

“All I could say is, ‘It’s not fair,’” McCue said.

Traveling to Rwanda, she added, broadened her scope of the injustices women face worldwide. Despite favorable law, McCue said women’s home lives remain a struggle.

“I realized that in a developing country it’s way worse than it is here,” she said.

In a closing prayer, Associate Pastor of Guiding Light Missionary Baptist Church Jewel Holt said attendees must now take action and summarized it in one word — love.

“Extend us to do what you have called us to do — love you, each other and ourselves,” she said.

Brittany Ruess can be reached at (573) 826-2419 or brittanyr@fultonsun.com.

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