To celebrate the beginning of Black History Month, an annual program spotlighted three of Elgin’s own icons who have accomplished much during their years of civic engagement and community service.
Each year, the Elgin NAACP branch hosts a city-wide Black History Showcase, during which a handful of community members are honored. The program was held at the Elgin Public Library on Saturday evening, February 1. This year, the showcase highlighted Bettye Bishop Lofton, Byron Caldwell and Gladys Ward.
Lofton served on the Elgin City Council as well as numerous committees. Since 1999, she has been the president of the Elgin Juneteenth Committee, which organizes Elgin’s annual celebration of the holiday marking Texan slaves’ freedom in 1965. She is also a coordinator of the county’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day walk.
Caldwell is a deacon for Weeping Willow Baptist Church and is involved with organizations such as the NAACP, the Juneteenth Committee and the MLK Organization. He is the vice president and secretary of the Elgin Youth Football & Cheer League, and he works as an aide at Hearts of Texas Head Start.
Ward was a long-time member of the Elgin City Council, serving for 22 years after being elected to the position in 1981. Ward was with the city during many major milestones, such as turning Elgin into a home-rule city in 1985, purchasing the Dr. I.B. Nofsinger house and moving City Hall there, and establishing the city’s Parks & Recreation Department.
The program started with Bishop Mayes, who shared an overview of the history behind Black History Month. In 1915, Carter G. Woodson set out to celebrate and bring awareness to the often-neglected achievements of African-Americans, and in 1926, that become Negro History Week. The second week in February was originally chosen to celebrate the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Fredrick Douglass, two birthdays already commonly celebrated. Eventually, in 1976, President Gerald Ford declared February as African-American History Month. This year’s theme is “African-Americans and the Vote,” celebrating the 150th anniversary of the 15th amendment, which gave black men the right to vote, and the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote as well.
“Tonight, we want to recognize our own,” Mayes said. Next, Mayor Chris Cannon presented the Black History Month proclamations to each of the honorees and shared remarks about each of them. Ward, who was once his substitute teacher, taught him how to “lead with love.”
After that, Lain Lewis gave an overview of notable African-American figures in Elgin’s own history over the past few decades. He highlighted many people, from business owners like Harvey Westbrook and Shifton McShan to religious leaders such as R.A. Westbrook and Q.S. Goins, as well as community leaders and activists such as Alma Penson. In 1979, Penson filed a lawsuit against the City of Elgin, alleging that the town’s at-large council member election system disadvantaged minority voters. As a result, in 1980, Elgin was divided into four wards, with two council members per ward, and Beth Hall was elected as the first African-American council member in Elgin. Lewis also pointed out Elginites who are keeping this legacy going, such as Elsie Williams and Byron Mitchell.
“History is not always pleasant, but it is history,” Lewis said. “Each one of these people represents a brick in black history.”
Four speakers then shared their thoughts about Caldwell, Lofton and Ward. Elgin community development director Amy Miller, who has worked with all three, praised their volunteerism: Caldwell works with many community organizations and activities, such as the Elgin Youth Football League; Lofton, a former city council member, has served on many committees; and Ward was involved with the push to give Elgin a four-ward council.
“These three individuals inspire us,” Miller said. “Their service encourages us to serve.”
Tavia Green said Caldwell is faithful to God, his family and his community.
“If there’s anything to know about Byron, it’s just that he’s faithful,” she said.
Barbara King called Lofton a servant for her community, her church and her family.
“Bettye embodies the qualities that make our African-American culture rich in God’s values,” she said.
Finally, Mertis Thomas, who has been friends with Gladys Ward for decades, shared stories and memories from their friendship, such as when she helped Ward first run for city council.
“It’s never a dull moment,” she said. “It was always an adventure, and we’d end up laughing at something before the day was through.”
Elsie Williams presented each honoree with a certificate from the NAACP, thanking them for their service to their community.
Family members, such as Joana Caldwell, Byron Caldwell’s wife, and Angelia Cook, Bettye Lofton’s daughter, gave their loved ones gifts and words of appreciation. Steven Ward, the son of Gladys Ward, approached his mother with a bouquet of roses and said she taught him that “all people matter,” no matter their background or situation.
“You learned the one thing that really matters,” Gladys Ward responded.
The evening concluded with words from each of the icons. Ward emphasized how much she loves people, and she shared a story about how nervous she was when she first joined the city council in 1981.
“We’re all different individuals, but it all works out,” she said.
Lofton said she volunteers because she loves it.
“God’s got my back,” she said.
Finally, Caldwell said he has never been one to seek honor, rather helping others in the background.
“It’s always been about, ‘What can I do for someone else?’” he said.