Harford County reflects on the civil rights movement at the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Breakfast

Jan. 24—A Who's Who of Harford County came out Saturday morning to reflect on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Harford NAACP's Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Breakfast. The event, sponsored by Harford County Government, was held in the banquet hall at the Level Volunteer Fire Company in Havre de Grace.

Approximately 200 people attended, according to Harford NAACP President Vicki Jones, who said more than 60 people were on the wait list.

"It was so wonderful to see so many people come out to support the Harford County NAACP and honor the legacy of Dr. King," Jones said. "Our goal for this event was 150 and because of the demand we opened it up to 200, but we could have had double the number of people here. I never thought that we would consistently outgrow venues."

A host of city and county officials sat alongside community, education and business leaders, including County Council President Patrick Vincenti; District F Council member Jacob Bennett and his wife, Abbie; District D Council member James Reilly; former County Council member and State Del. Andre Johnson; former County Executive Barry Glassman; Judge Angela Eaves, Maryland Supreme Court; Joseph Sliwka, newly appointed director of the Harford County Department of Community Services; and newly elected Harford Board of Education members Denise Perry and Wade Sewell.

"It was a wonderful event, and Abbie and I look forward to continuing to work with the NAACP as active members," Bennett said.

The event also paid homage to the county's civil rights history. Rev. Dr. Janice Grant was acknowledged during the event. The 89-year-old Aberdeen native is considered the county's oldest living civil rights activist, Jones said, and was the first president of the Harford NAACP.

Wearing a sequined cobalt blue headwrap, Jones waved to the audience from her table, and offered stories from moments in U.S. civil rights history to those who chatted with her while eating. Grant's efforts to end segregation in Harford County have been documented in the Harford County Civil Rights project, which has recorded the oral histories of Grant and other African Americans who lived in the county during segregation.

"Harford County is changing," Jones said.

Dance, music and spoken word were interwoven throughout the program. Youth from the Dimensions Dance Center in Abingdon performed. Vocalist Jessika Williams, of White Hall, led the gathering in the hymn "Lift Every Voice and Sing," along with a stirring rendition of the Mahalia Jackson classic, "If I Can Help Somebody." Christopher Providence of Havre de Grace shared words of reflection.

"Fantastic breakfast this morning in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.," Johnson posted on his Facebook page after the event.

The event was a family affair, with several parents bringing their young children to the program, among them Robert Williams Jr., of Bel Air, and his 7-year-old son Robert III.

"He needs to experience the fellowship and learn about Dr. King," Williams Jr. said. "It's important."

More than 25 Harford County youth attended, including 15 sponsored by the Harford County Caucus of African American Leaders and members of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority's youth group, which donated 103 children's books in honor of the national sorority's 103rd Founders' Day.

"As a national partner of the NAACP, the Omicron Chi Zeta Chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., and the Zeta Youth Groups of Harford County wanted to support that relationship by honoring the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., while also supporting organizations like CASA that stand up and advocate for the best interests of children," said Keisha McDowell, director of youth activities for the Zeta Youth Groups of Harford County.

Attendees were also asked to bring children's books as part of the NAACP's "Today a Reader, Tomorrow a Leader" reading initiative. The books were donated to CASA of Harford County.

"I was so thrilled that this year as an organization, the NAACP collected books for the children supported by CASA of Harford County," Bennett posted on his Facebook page. "Martin Luther King's sister, Christine King Farris, devoted her entire career to supporting children's literacy. Their is no liberation without literacy."

Both Bennett and his wife are educators.

The importance of education was the focus of the keynote speech given by Theresa Felder, president of Harford Community College. Felder, who just celebrated her second anniversary as the college's top administrator, highlighted programs that support the school's students in and out of the classroom, such as the school's food pantry and emergency assistance fund.

"If their lights are off or their car is not working and needs repairs, they're likely not to come to class," Felder said. "We can, and have helped students with that."

Felder stressed that higher education opens economic opportunities and said that vocational and trade programs Harford Community College offers provides those advancement opportunities for county residents.

During her administration, Felder said, the college has created partnerships with business and county government leaders, "many of whom are in this room," to create a college-to-work employment pipeline.

"I've heard people say that not everybody is cut out for college, but I don't believe that," Felder said. "If you come to HCC and enroll in a trade program, that's college. We have something for everyone."

Felder also extended an invitation to Jones and the NAACP to hold the 2024 Freedom Breakfast on the HCC campus.

The program closed with the installation of the Harford County NAACP executive officers for the 2023-25 term: along with Jones as president, Kevin McKinney, vice president; Richard Carey, secretary; Jessica Fendryk, treasurer; Mary Jane Price, YouthWorks chair; Jessika Williams, Freedom Fund chair; and At Large members Van Jones, Nolanda Robert and Richard Williams Jr.