Illustration by Rachel Edelstein
Illustration by Rachel Edelstein
Furthering Nelson’s Legacy

Almost 150 years ago, ex-slave and Santa Cruz resident Louden Nelson showed a strong commitment to the cause of public education. When he passed away in 1860, he left his entire estate to the Santa Cruz City School District. A plaque rests in the Louden Nelson Community Center in commemoration of his generosity, which is still appreciated by many today.

“I guess some of these stories need to be re-told periodically,” said Bruce Englehardt, NAACP executive board member. Today the NAACP is, in a sense, continuing Nelson’s legacy. Proceeds from the gumbo dinner and blues event they are hosting this Saturday at the Louden Nelson Community Center will be partially used to fund scholarships for students. The recommended $20 donation will allow the NAACP to help some students of color in Santa Cruz afford higher education.

“Martin Luther King was a gospel preacher,” said Debra Holmes, executive board manager for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “So why not celebrate him with gospel music?”

That’s why the Santa Cruz branch of the NAACP is kicking off its Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend events with a “Gospel Night” this Friday at the Circle Church, 111 Errett Circle.

Holmes will be performing with the rest of her choir from the Progressive Missionary Baptist Church. The event will be held at 7 p.m. and will be open to the public with a recommended $5 donation.

Organizers hope to raise money for the services the NAACP offers, including scholarships and legal support in discrimination cases, some of which have occurred at UC Santa Cruz.

Many of the details of the discrimination cases, which range from issues in employment to housing, could not be disclosed.

NAACP member Debra Hill Alston said, “[We are] there to shine a light on issues that will bring about the changes that we need to have a healthy society.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2008 the estimated total population of Santa Cruz County was 253,137, but the African-American population for the county is listed at only 1.3 percent.

For people who identify as one or more races including African-American, the figure rises to 2.9 percent.

Yet both Holmes and Alston insist that the lack of ethnic diversity in Santa Cruz does not change or complicate the vision or mission of the local NAACP chapter.

“I think we’re all a combination of various things,” Holmes said. “We’re all Americans, and this is a melting pot.”

The NAACP began in 1909 when civil rights advocates like sociologist W.E.B. DuBois and labor reformer William English Walling gathered for a National Negro Committee in response to race riots and lynchings in Springfield, Ill.

The Santa Cruz branch of the NAACP, which celebrated its 60th anniversary last year, witnessed the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and the struggles of Martin Luther King Jr.

This Friday’s gospel night and the events over the weekend aim to help people remember that legacy.

“Martin Luther King was such a catalytic player in the Civil Rights Movement. He himself was a member of the NAACP,” said Bruce Englehardt, executive board member. “So his philosophy gives the organization and the community something to rally around in terms of renewing a commitment to his philosophy of equal rights and opportunities.”

The local Santa Cruz branch, one of 117 nationwide, will also be looking forward as it fights incidents of racism and discrimination.

“There are still situations, still instances of discrimination, still incidents of bigotry that occur within society and the community,” Englehardt said. “This is why it needs to continue to function, and [why] the NAACP speaks up for other situations, other groups as well on occasion.”

The NAACP will also host its annual “Gumbo, Blues & Jazz” dinner on Saturday at the Louden Nelson Community Center, a bowling party at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk on Sunday, and the Basketball Classic and Youth showcase at Santa Cruz High School on Monday.

All events are open to the public. As they raise money for future services that range from the annual Labor Day Barbecue to legal advocacy and support, members agree what’s important is that the NAACP keep busy.

“It’s still active,” board member Holmes said. “Hopefully one day, we don’t need it. Wouldn’t that be great? But I believe at this time, we still do need it.”