Wednesday, April 17, 2024

History maker

Terri Toone reflects on being the first Black woman to lead Springtown Chamber


SPRINGTOWN — Tears came to Terri Toone’s eyes when she started thinking about Rosa Parks’ legacy.

Fed up with racist discrimination, Parks refused the order of a Montgomery city bus driver to give up her seat to a white passenger Dec. 1, 1955. A Washington Post article from 2015 quotes her as saying, “I had been pushed around all my life and felt at this moment that I couldn’t take it anymore.” Unfortunately for Parks, the police arrested and fined her, but in the bigger picture, her dissent sparked change. The Montgomery bus boycott began and ended after the bus system’s segregated seating was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and the court ordered integrated seating.

Toone thinks about Parks and tries to imagine what it must’ve been like for her on that bus to deal with the hurtfulness of inequality.

“That was a strong woman,” Toone said.

When Black History Month comes around in February, Toone becomes a scholar on Black history and uses the occasion to educate herself as much as she can as well as provide opportunities for her young granddaughter to learn. This year, she was fascinated by Bessie Coleman, the first African American woman to get a pilot license, as well as the importance of historically Black colleges and universities.

Toone is a historical Black figure in her own right as the first Black woman to serve as executive director of the Springtown Area Chamber of Commerce.

After she was named executive director last year, Toone didn’t immediately understand the historical nature of her hiring. She recalled being confused after being approached by someone in the grocery store who told her that her appointment was a major change for Springtown.

“I thought, what does he mean this is really big? But now I understand what he was saying,” she said.

In addition, Toone is in the minority as a Black chamber director compared to other chambers in the area. In group meetings with other executive directors, she has noticed she’s the only Black woman.

“I don't feel like I've been treated any differently,” she said. “It just never dawned on me. I just feel like I'm an executive director until I actually am in a position where I look around and say, ‘Hey, I am the only Black female sitting in here.’ So, it's a good feeling. It's a steppingstone for us in leadership positions.”

Toone hopes to be a “role model for all women of color” and would like to see more racial variety in the chamber’s membership of business leaders. Ultimately, she wants Black folks to feel included in Springtown and at the chamber of commerce.

“It's all about community, and we have to get the community involved to make it work for all of us,” Toone said.

Visibility can help with this goal. Toone has noticed other Springtown-area Black people will introduce themselves to her when she’s out and about, and she uses that interaction as an opportunity to tell them about the chamber of commerce.

“I would just like to see more people like myself taking benefits from what we can offer them and help them to grow their business, which in turn grows our community and their revenue,” Toone said.

Originally, Toone moved to Springtown years ago in part because of the friendly neighbors who waved at her when she came to town looking for homes. To this day, she feels comfortable in Springtown, including when she and her family attend events at her granddaughter’s elementary school, and said people don’t treat her differently because of her race.

“This is the place to be,” Toone said. “It's up and coming. We've got these communities coming in. I noticed that more Blacks are moving into the community. I love Springtown. This is it for me.”

At the Jan. 25 Springtown City Council meeting, Mayor Greg Hood proclaimed February 2024 as Black History Month in the city.

“Black History Month affords a special opportunity to become more knowledgeable about Black heritage and to honor the many Black leaders that have contributed to the progress of our nation,” Hood said during the meeting.

Black History Month, as it is known today, started as “Negro History Week” that was spearheaded by Carter G. Woodson and first occurred in 1926 during the second week of February. The timing of Negro History Week is in honor of the February birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, but Woodson wanted Black people to be recognized for their societal contributions beyond the legacies of Douglass and Lincoln, according to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History’s website.

The celebration of Negro History Week spread across the country. At the time, the association would set annual themes for the week and issue study materials to cater to history clubs and teachers. Mayors in some cities would issue proclamations for the week.

Negro History Week eventually evolved into Black History Month, which was a change pushed in the 1960s by cultural activist Fredrick H. Hammaurabi and Black college students, according to the association’s website. In 1976, former President Gerald Ford called for the national recognition of Black History Month.

“Freedom and the recognition of individual rights are what our (American) Revolution was all about,” Ford wrote. “They were ideals that inspired our fight for independence: ideals that we have been striving to live up to ever since. Yet it took many years before ideals became a reality for Black citizens. The last quarter-century has finally witnessed significant strides in the full integration of Black people into every area of national life. In celebrating Black History Month, we can take satisfaction from this recent progress in the realization of the ideals envisioned by our Founding Fathers. But, even more than this, we can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

This year, Hood ended his proclamation by encouraging Springtown residents to “continue to join together in making this period a rededication to the principles of justice and equality for all people.”