DECATUR – Many of the more than 150 people who gathered Tuesday evening for an annual soul food dinner expected to honor the accomplishments of black people, living and dead.
Few expected to also recall a figure from Decatur's history who that morning had transitioned from one category to the other.
“I'd like to have a moment of silence for our adviser Miss Ida Brooks,” a tearful Michelle Mitchell said before returning grace, and a hush fell over the lower level of Millikin University's Richards Treat center.
Mitchell said later that Brooks, 71, a retired physical education teacher at Eisenhower High School, collapsed in November while on a field trip with Old King's Orchard Community Center and had been hospitalized ever since.
The announcement added a thoughtful note to a Black History Month celebration by Millikin and by Dennis School, which before dinner served up 28 fifth-graders who portrayed important black people through their own poetry, starting with athletes such as Wilma Rudolph and Muhammad Ali and finishing up with activists such as Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Diarus Brown wore cotton balls on his head and his chin to portray Civil War abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and Shakaria Selvy donned a paper costume to make her resemble astronaut Mae Jemison, the first black woman to travel in space in 1992.
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Kyle Kauzlarich sported a Walter Payton football jersey belonging to his aunt but removed it before sitting down to a buffet that included greens, sweet potatoes, chitlins and more.
Perhaps the most animated poet, however, was Simeon Risby, who wore a lab coat and goggles for his portrayal of a famous botanist and inventor.
“I say fear for something is at the root of hate for others, and hate within will eventually destroy the hater,” Simeon said. “I am George Washington Carver, or as you know me, the Peanut Man.”
Mitchell, who oversees the alternative placement room at Muffley School and operates Soul Cuisine De'Elegance catering, has organized an annual Soulful Taste experience since the first one she did for her co-workers at Dennis School in 2001.
The meal moved to the former Washington School and to Hope Academy and Thomas Jefferson Middle School before coming full circle back to Dennis.
“It's my way of helping people understand what soul food is,” Mitchell said.