Beloved Teacher Honored

Beloved Teacher Honored

MEMBERS of the commUNITY ARTSreach and Jefferson Center Music Lab sing songs in the theme of the Rockbridge NAACP banquet, “Journey to Freedom.” The second annual Freedom Fund Banquet is the primary fundraiser for the local NAACP chapter. (Jin Ni photo)

Beloved Teacher Honored

IRMA THOMPSON addresses the crowd after being honored at the Freedom Fund Banquet. Holding the microphone for her is her neice, Marylin Alexander. (John Driscoll photo)

Beloved Teacher Honored

DR. AYESHA KELLY delivers the keynote address for the second annual Rockbridge NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet. (John Driscoll photo)

Thompson Recognized At NAACP Banquet

A 102-year-old former teacher, who taught white students long before school desegregation, was honored at the second annual Rockbridge NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet Friday night at the Natural Bridge Hotel.

Irma B. Thompson has dedicated her life to education, whether it was her own learning at Buena Vista Colored School in seventh grade or teaching white students in Goshen in 1938, well before the integration of schools.

“It’s been nice,” she said of the banquet after a standing ovation. “I’ve seen people dear to me, teachers I’ve worked with, students, my family. I’d like to thank all of you.”

The Freedom Fund Banquet is a fundraising event used to support the national chapter, the local chapter, and litigation the organization undertakes on behalf of civil rights.

The event was attended by 230 people, including members of the community and elected officials, such as Lexington Mayor Frank Friedman and U.S Rep. Ben Cline.

As a young girl, Thompson would hop the train at 7:30 a.m. in order to attend Lylburn Downing in Lexington, the only high school for African American children. She would go home on the 7:30 p.m. train.

“Black students left the area to finish high school back then, either to Christiansburg or other places far from home,” said Thompson’s niece, Marylin Alexander, a member of Lexington City Council. “But she had an aunt in Bluefield, West Virginia, where there was a college offering high school classes so she stayed there for a year until it closed.”

Thompson obtained her teaching license at Bluefield State College, and then went on to teach at Glasgow Elementary School, the Park Avenue School for Blacks, and Parry McCluer Elementary. She retired in 1985, after 47 years of teaching.

“[Her students] loved her, and she loved her students,” Alexander said in her introduction.

The Rockbridge NAACP also presented Thompson with a donation of $500 to the restoration of the Buena Vista Colored School building, a project she has undertaken in her retirement.

In her speech that evening, she said, “I’ve always said that if life was a project, it would be finished before I leave. I’m getting near the end of the project and I’m not ready to go.”

Dr. Ayesha Kelly, a practicing general surgeon, delivered the keynote address at the banquet, reflecting on her journey as a black woman in the medical field.

“There were times I felt like I wasn’t going to make it,” Kelly said. “To get here, to be done and in a career where I can look back and say, ‘I did that’ ... and now I don’t lack anything, I really feel very blessed.”

In her speech, Kelly characterized her college experience as something rewarding and difficult and educational in many different ways. She said she was the victim of sexual assault, and went through a period of time in which her grades suffered as a result of trauma. She was discouraged from taking classes in medicine and was told that it wasn’t something she actually wanted to do. People would tell her that she came by her achievements, whether it was grades or college admission, only because of affirmative action.

In her residency, she faced sexist attitudes, racial discrimination and doubt about her ability to be a surgeon, not just from her peers, but from her mentors and superiors. Kelly was also pregnant with her second child, Morgan Kelly, during her residency.

But Kelly said she knew she wanted to go to medical school since she was 16. “I picked out all the schools that I thought would be the ones that would get me into medical school,” she said.

She was accepted into Duke, Brown, Cornell and Johns Hopkins. Kelly had attended her first choice, the University of Virginia, on a four-year, full-ride scholarship.

“When the letters started coming in, it was a moment of ‘You did what you were supposed to do, you are where you’re supposed to be, and you worked hard and you deserve that spot,’” said Kelly. “It was everything to me, to hear, and to feel that I deserved to get what I got.”

Kelly said she hopes her story inspires the next generation. “I feel an obligation to tell them: ‘You are worthy. You worked hard. You made it on your own accord, despite whatever people may say in terms of affirmative action. You did what you had to do to get where you needed to be and you deserve to be here,’” said Kelly.

The Rev. Reginald A. Early brought the banquet to a close by leading everyone in the room in singing “Lift Every Voice.” The hymn was written by James Weldon Johnson as a rallying cry for freedom for African Americans and has now become a tradition at the Freedom Fund fundraiser.

“It was a huge success,” said Early of the event in an interview. He hopes that the event will encourage more people to become members of the Rockbridge NAACP. “The NAACP is the largest and oldest civil rights organization in the country. After 109 years, the NAACP is still needed, especially in times like these.”

In the coming year, the chapter hopes to make effective changes in the Rockbridge community, he said, including addressing alleged civil rights violations in the local jail and the lack of diversity in teaching staff across Rockbridge area schools.

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