Former Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton has a message for his native Lebanon community and others who are currently watching and participating in protests and marches for racial equality: Get the Message.
Wharton was the keynote speaker at the Wilson County Black History Committee’s Annual Juneteenth Celebration last Friday at Cumberland University’s Baird Chapel.
Because of coronavirus concerns only about 80 tickets were sold for the event, with just four people sitting at each table in a room that can accommodate at least twice that many guests.
Wharton delivered his 30-minute speech via a Zoom call on two large-screen TVs. He said he does a lot of work with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis and would have had to be quarantined for two weeks when he returned home if he had traveled through a virus “hot spot (Nashville).”
He said he was not wearing red (the color chosen to honor the Juneteenth observation) because he overlooked the email requesting him to do so.
“I did not get the message,” Wharton said. “Just like there are far too many people in America’s cities and small towns who are not free because America has not fully gotten the message. There are still too many people enslaved in many ways.”
And Wharton, who graduated from Tennessee State in 1966 and received his law degree from the University of Mississippi in 1971, said getting the message is still not enough to create change.
“And don’t just hear the message. Listen to the message. Act on the message,” he said.
Wharton, who serves on the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, supported making Juneteenth a national holiday. Texas made it a state holiday in 1980 and other states, including Tennessee, have recently considered doing so as well.
Juneteenth recognizes the day that freedom for slaves was announced in Texas, the final state to do so.
“At the time of the greatest racial turmoil I have seen in my who life, we don’t have a day commemorating slavery in the United States,” Wharton said. “A day like that should be as much a part of the fabric of our nation as the flag. Juneteenth should be a national holiday to show the equality of all people and the freedom of all people.”
Wharton thanked WCBHC President Mary Harris for her “decades of work that makes sure the history of black people in Wilson County is reflected in a dignified manner.”
The dinner was also a fundraiser for the Pickett Chapel restoration project. The nearly 200-year-old structure has a new roof, new cupola and belfry and a new entrance. The committee has raised nearly $200,000 through public and private donations.
Dinner sponsor Wilson Bank & Trust presented a $500 scholarship in honor of Wharton’s parents to be given to a Cumberland University student. Wharton recently was named Trustee Emeritus at the university. The committee gave a watercolor painting of Pickett Chapel — painted by Sam Hatcher — to both Wharton and bank CEO John McDearman.