New Gastonia group launching improvement initiative in black community

A newly formed group in Highland, Gastonia’s oldest predominantly black neighborhood, is launching a community improvement initiative on Monday with a weeklong series called “The Martin Luther King Jr. Youth Extravaganza.”

An essay-writing contest, an MLK march in downtown Gastonia and basketball game are part of the lineup of events. A family movie night will feature a film about the hundreds of children who marched in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 during the civil rights movement.

But a founder of the African American Concerned Men of Highland says the “extravaganza” is just the beginning of a larger effort, which includes more minority representation in local government and improved communication between the black community and police.

“We want to bring people together as one,” said retired minister Kenneth Fleming. “If we can get everybody working together I think we will be a better city to live, work and play in.”

A youth talent show Monday at the Highland Health Center will be followed by an oratorical essay contest on Tuesday. The essay theme is “Keep Moving Forward.”

Built in 2010, the health center is a partnership between the Gaston County Department of Health and Human Services.

Cynthia Stitt, public health nurse administrator for the department of health and human services, hopes the talent and essay contests will help young people focus on their community and realize “what a great thing it is to have a healthy place.”

Fleming, 67, was a Christian Methodist Episcopal pastor for 26 years in Gastonia and other cities. Over the years, he has coached basketball, football and track in Gaston County schools, he said.

Fleming said several young men from the Highland community approached him about two months ago concerned about the lack of male leadership in Highland and the lack of minorities in local government.

As the group formed with about a dozen members, other issues arose, including a need to reach young people who don’t attend church and get the attention offered there.

“They don’t have the guidance others have,” Fleming said. “A lot of these kids need counseling. ”

He said the new neighborhood organization can provide that counseling and help young people assume leadership roles. The group also can do such things as help young people prepare for SAT tests and arrange job fairs that target youths.

The national issue of a communications gap between communities and police is also something the neighborhood group will address, Fleming said.

“We’re in the process of getting a forum with the city police, sheriff’s department and county police,” he said. “We want to start closing that gap.”

A date for the forum hasn’t been announced, but Fleming said steps are already being taken to improve communications.

On Jan. 24, the African American Men of Highland will play local law enforcement officers in the Martin Luther King Jr. basketball game at the Erwin Community Center in Gastonia.

The week of events will wrap up Jan. 25 with a youth program featuring a guest speaker at the Erwin center.

Fleming said Black History Month events are being planned by members of the new organization such as Jim Biggers, who is putting together an exhibit about pioneer black leaders from Gaston.

An artist and retired Gaston educator, Biggers, 66, grew up in the historic Highland community.

He’s trying to track down old photos of Highland’s thriving business district. And he hopes the exhibit will help young people appreciate the contributions of such African-American leaders as the late T. Jeffers, Gastonia’s first black mayor, and Nathaniel Barber, the first black member of the Gastonia City Council.

Biggers is impressed by the neighborhood organization’s focus on young people.

“It’s about time we did something,” he said. “It’s a matter of everybody chipping in to help.”