Gwendolyn Mastin has fought AIDS in South Shore for close to 15 years, and Tuesday her efforts were honored during Illinois State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka’s 9th Annual African American Heritage Month Celebration.
More than 100 people attended the ceremony for Mastin and the other five award winners, which was held at the concourse level of the James R. Thompson Center.
“The month of February offers us the opportunity to celebrate and honor the achievements and successes of African Americans in Chicago, in Illinois and throughout the country,” said Topinka, speaking during the 40th year since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. met with then-President Lyndon Johnson to discuss the Voting Rights Act. “The month-long celebration is held to honor those who have come before us and to teach those who will be tomorrow’s leaders.”
Each of the honorees fit the celebration’s dual purpose of remembering the past and inspiring future generations, Topinka said.
Mastin said the recognition was timely because the AIDS epidemic is at a new and potentially even more deadly phase.
“I don’t think people understand that this virus has just turned into another face, one that we were hoping would never get here.” said Mastin, founder and director of New Phoenix Assistance Center, which provides independent scattered-site housing for women with HIV/AIDS and their families. “We may be looking for the first time in our lives to have orphans in this country from this virus.”
Mastin explained that many children who are on the street do not know that they are carrying the virus, but are bartering with their bodies. “We’re working towards trying to pull those children and try to make a new home for them,” said Mastin, whose organization also does outreach to homeless and precariously housed youth.
Mastin added that she was honored to be included among the honorees.
The other award winners included: Monica Haslip, founder and president of Little Black Pearl Art and Design Center; Cook County Circuit Judge Judith Pamela Hill-Veal; Martin L. King, chairman of Rainbow/PUSH Coalition; Julieanna Richardson; president of The History Makers; and Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, senior pastor, Trinity United Church of Christ.
King and emcee Dorothy Tucker of CBS 2 paid tribute to Wright. He in turn credited his church’s membership, which has grown from 87 people when he first became pastor in 1972 to nearly 10,000 members.
“Trinity Church is what it is because of the people who should be standing here,” said Wright, who mentioned the church’s work in Ghana, South Africa and Brazil as well as in Chicago. “You are the ones being honored today. I thank God for you and for your church, all it has become.” Mastin also spoke about the importance of her staff, which she called New Phoenix’s “wind and wings.”
The celebration featured a wide range of singing, dancing and inspirational speaking talent.
Leon “Rock” Guyton opened the event by leading the group in James Weldon Johnson’s Black National Anthem after students from Bronzeville Academy posted the colors. Kenwood Academy High School sophomore Taylor Moore recited sections of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered a speech about the importance of excellence and did a rap about Dr King’s life.
“Dr. King is one who was a dream keeper and whose dream has been fulfilled gratefully,” said Moore, an honors student. “The people on this stage are helping to keep that dream alive.
Each and every one of us is a dream keeper, whether or not we have a plaque in our hand,” Moore said.
Topinka concurred, saying that black history should be remembered throughout the year.
“Not only should we celebrate African Americans in February, but we should remember the tribulations endured and accomplishments they have achieved the whole year through,” Topinka said.