Early college students remember Chestnut

Published 9:18 pm Friday, February 27, 2009

Godfrey King’s voice echoed in the Earl Goodwin Theatre at Wallace Community College Selma. He paced back and forth across the stage singing ‘Steal Away Home’ and gesturing with his hands. Selma Early College students watched the director of performing arts sing the same spiritual his ancestors sang in the fields many years ago. He talked about the trials and tribulations his ancestors endured. He said there was a time when Friday morning’s program would have been unacceptable.

“It was not kosher for them to be gathered in one place,” King said.

Selma Early College gathered to celebrate Black History and the legacy of local activist J.L. Chestnut, Jr. Director Concetta Burton said the program educated the students through song, dance and a speech by Gerald Chestnut Riberio, daughter of Selma’s first black attorney.

Email newsletter signup

“We’re trying to involve the community as well as educate the kids,” Burton said.

Riberio, who now lives in California, spoke about her father’s legacy and how young people could continue it. She spoke 13 times during the month of February about her father’s role in black history.

“He believed everything starts at home,” she said. “He was a perfect father.”

Chestnut spoke across the country, from San Francisco to Selma, about education, social injustices and family values. Riberio said she could not have asked for a better father. She remembers him spending Saturday afternoons blowing on a saxophone and fingering piano keys.

“He was a dynamic and positive role model,” she said.

Laquisha King, a sophomore in Selma Early College, said Chestnut’s impact was felt around the world. She said she enjoyed learning more about him and celebrating his life.

“He was a great legacy to all, not just in Selma, but around the world,” she said.

Riberio urged the students to be proud of their past and hold tight to their family. She said her father advocated strong, black male role models.

“You need to support your family financially,” she said to the young men in attendance. “You need to raise your family with love and concern.”

Riberio said her mother begged her father not to move back to Selma in 1957. She feared the toll it would take on the family. She said only 70 blacks were registered to vote in 1957 when her father moved to Selma.

“Some people said he was crazy to come home and practice law here,” she said.

William Childress, a senior in Selma Early College, said before Friday, Chestnut was just a name he heard around town. After Riberio’s speech, he said he was in awe of the attorney’s struggle for civil rights.

“I never knew he did so much,” Childress said. “It takes a lot to go up against a lot of people like he did.”

During her speech, Riberio stepped from behind the podium bearing the name Wallace and stood next to a painting of her father. She lifted her left arm, pointed toward the painting and leaned toward the edge of the stage for emphasis.

“The characteristics of a hero are personified in this man,” she said. “Some of the advantages that you enjoy in this town today are because of J.L. Chestnut, Jr.”