A national holiday in commemoration of the late Rosa Parks, the heroine of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and the modern Civil Rights Movement, is high on the list of priorities for the World Conference of Mayors (WCM) and the closely associated Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance (HBTSA).
Because of two consecutive years of COVID-19 threats and disruptions, the 2022 World Conference of Mayors convened in both virtual and in-person modes during its three-day program (Jan. 26-29) in Orlando and Eatonville, Florida. Eatonville was the hometown of Zora Neale Hurston, although she was born in Notasulga, Alabama, 11 miles north of Tuskegee. Her family moved to Eatonville, Fla., when she was still an infant. Eatonville, established in 1887, promotes itself as “the oldest incorporated African American municipality in America.”
The annual festival celebrating the life and legacy of Zora Neale Hurston in Eatonville usually coincides with the World Conference of Mayors but has been re-scheduled for June 2022 because of the COVID-19 problem, said WCM founder-president Johnny Ford.
“The Zora festival has become one the nation’s outstanding festive and cultural events,” Ford said. “And we always have our conference during that period. We voted to have the WCM conference virtual because of COVID. But in June we will go back to Orlando to hold the second part of this conference. And it will take place on June 2-5 in Orlando and will allow for our participation in the Zora festival in Eatonville.
“We’re celebrating 2022 as the Year of the Woman,” said Ford.
“We’re kicking off Black History Month with the celebration of Rosa Parks’ birthday. And we honored a number of women who represent organizations from around the country and internationally, like Queen Mother Delois Blakely of New York, who is known as the Community Mayor of Harlem. She is also the community’s goodwill ambassador to the United Nations. We honored her and these other outstanding women with the Rosa Parks Award.”
Tennessee Congressman Jim Cooper is sponsoring a bill in the House of Representatives that, if passed, will establish the Rosa Parks National Holiday, said Ford.
“Rosa was born in Tuskegee on February 4, 1913. I was her mayor,” Ford said. “That’s what she called me. Her mayor. And I spent a lot of time with her. We have plans of memorializing her birthplace. I named the street in front of Tuskegee’s City Hall in her honor – Rosa Parks Plaza. This Friday (Feb. 4), we will have a march and rally in her honor, because we’re determined to make the dream a reality.”
Late in her life, Rosa Parks settled in Detroit under the auspices of then-Congressman John Conyers. She died there on October 24, 2005.
The worldwide association of mayors devoted a major part of its three-day program towards solidifying the links between Tuskegee and Prairie View, Texas in the United States and their proposed “twin” cities in Africa – Mbuji-Mayi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Prairie View’s counterpart in Equatorial Guinea in Africa.
“This conference provided an opportunity for mayors of this country and other countries to see how twin cities work and hopefully, as a result of this conference, we will have other towns and cities to enter sister-city, or twin-city, relationships,” said the WCM founder-president.
“Above all,” said Ford, “I want to thank Dwayne Boyd, the Minister of Agriculture for the State of the African Diaspora, and Congolese Senator Eddy Mundela Kanku, the vice-president of the Senate of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for participating in our conference. Conferees from around the world had a chance to hear and see officials from Mbuji-Mayi in the DRC and Tuskegee Mayor Lawrence F. Haygood Jr. as they officially established the Sister-City program between the two cities. Mbuji-Mayi is the second largest city in the DRC and is a good match for the Tuskegee community and the University.
“We are excited because the Congo is blessed with an abundance of natural resources and minerals,” Ford said. “And its government is a major player in Africa and the world.
“In Tuskegee,” Ford continued in his exclusive interview Monday with the Jackson Advocate, “we are the home of Tuskegee University, which is known for the scientific work of Dr. George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington, who sent his first emissary to Togo, Africa in 1900. We’re looking at agricultural exchange and the transfer of technology as it relates to agriculture and international trade. The opportunities are tremendous. The Congo, in particular, has some of the best coffee in the world. That’s one of the products we plan on developing a market for.”
The area around Mbuji-Mayi is one of the richest sources of mineral wealth in the world. In the 1950s, the Mbuji-Mayi area contained the world’s most important industrial diamond deposits, and governance of the city was closely coordinated with the government-owned mining company, MIBA, under Belgian rule at the time.
“During this conference, I was able to join Tuskegee Mayor Haygood and Dwayne Boyd – those of us from the U.S. side – and we were able to talk face-to-face via Zoom with Senator Mundela and other officials from the Congo. We have a consent-agreement that the two cities will be officially entering into the Sister-City relationship. We had planned to have the ceremony in Orlando so that everyone from cities around the world could see how it’s done. But we had to reschedule it due to COVID.”
In coming months, Ford said, the official signing date and ceremony for the Tuskegee-Mbuji Mayi sister-city compact will be announced.
“Anyway, it’s on,” Ford said. “The relation has officially been kicked off. That was the first public display of the official of the twinning of the two cities. Now, plans are being made for officials from the Congo to come to visit us here in Tuskegee for the official signing. And we will put together a trade delegation to go to the Congo within the near future. It will be an ongoing relationship. This is important, because it was out of ‘Twin Cities’ proposal of 1977 that Tuskegee and Banjul, the Gambia – the ancestral home of Alex Haley (author of Roots) – entered into one of the first Sister-City relationships between an African city and a predominantly African American city. As a result, we organized the World Conference of Mayors.
“Also, because of that relationship, we took professionals from Tuskegee University, including the dean of the School of Architecture, the dean of the School of Agriculture, and the Business School. All these people were able to go to the Gambia to see what their problems were, came back, loaded up, and sent applications to the World Bank and US AID to get funding to rebuild the central marketplace in Banjul. This will be the same idea for us to accomplish tangible things that will benefit the citizens of both cities by working together.”
WCM was incorporated in April 1984 and operates in conjunction with the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance (HBTSA), with Ford as founder or co-founder of both groups.
Ford points out that the historic Greenwood Community of Tulsa, OK was named after the community of Greenwood, Alabama where the school of Tuskegee was first established. It was Booker T. Washington who gave the name “Black Wall Street” to Tulsa’s Greenwood Community, he said.
Ford was elected president of the WCM in Orlando last week. Current President Ed Jones decided to step down from the office due to health complications.
“He will become our president emeritus and immediate past president and still be a member of the board,” Ford said. “But, he is going to concentrate on his health right now. He will still be active with us.”
Once resuming the office, Ford will hold four titles: President, the Secretary-General, the CEO, and Founder-President.
Ford is celebrating his 50th year in politics. He won the contest for Tuskegee mayor in 1972 at age 29 and was considering running for state office again 50 years later, in 2022, until announcing in January that he was pulling out of the race. He remains a member of the Tuskegee City Council, nevertheless.
AWARDS TO WOMEN
“If you want to get something done, ask a lady,” Ford said. “Let them take the lead on it.”
In addition to Queen Mother Blakely, Rosa Parks Awards recipients for WCM/HBTSA’s Year of the Woman 2022 included: Dr. Faye Williams, president of the National Congress of Black Women and UN ambassador for International Peace; Debra Frazer Howze, founder of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS; Congresswoman Val Demings of Florida; Orlando Commissioner Regina Hill; Geraldine Holland Miller, mayor of Mayersville, SC; Kenya Cox, executive director of Kansas African American Affairs and president of Wichita NAACP; Attorney Lezli Baskerville, president and CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education; Lelia Foley Davis, mayor of Taft, OK, the first Black woman elected mayor in the U.S.; and Queen Mother Wakeelah Martinez of Wichita and the Kansas Council of Elders, reputed to be the most well-organized council of elders in the United States.