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Black history forms future milestones

February 16, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

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HAGERSTOWN -- The Rev. G. Nathan Bell remembers a time when he couldn't even walk through the doors of the main YMCA in Hagerstown because of the color of his skin.

On Monday, he was invited there as a keynote speaker.

"We've come a long way," he said to a roar of applause, during his speech for the YMCA Black Achievers program's Black History Month Celebration.

Bell, pastor of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in Chambersburg, Pa., encouraged the young members of the Black Achievers program to set their goals high, develop their character and act with integrity even in the face of injustice.

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Bell described one evening in 1960 when his own character was tested by the indignities of segregation. Washington County schools were just beginning the integration process and Bell, a senior, was one of the only two black players on North Hagerstown High School's football team.

One night, after Bell scored an important touchdown at a game in Westminster, Md., the team went to a hot dog restaurant to celebrate. Bell and the team's other black player were told they wouldn't be served and would have to wait outside.

"We were very depressed and downhearted because here our high had been dropped to a low," Bell said. "We didn't feel like nothing anymore."

Bell said that at that moment, he could have resorted to anger and thrown a brick through the store's window, but he knew that wouldn't accomplish anything.

"We just accepted it and recognized that we need to do better; we need to build up ourselves; we could not make a bad name for ourselves in that situation," he said.

Young people today do not face the same barriers, but they still need to guard their character and work to break down negative racial stereotypes, Bell said.

"If you develop your character so you are a law-abiding citizen ... then nobody can bring you down from that," he said.

Bell cautioned against the materialism prevalent in today's society.

"Don't go for the bling-bling; go for the character and the integrity so that you can be somebody," Bell said. "It's not what you have, it is who you are that people judge you by."

Bell said that when he was a young boy, he and his friends thought the biggest achievement in store for them would be making the school basketball team.

"That was about as far as our goal was because it seemed like everything else was closed to us," he said.

Today, the opportunities are wide open, and Bell encouraged young people to consider not only careers as athletes or entertainers, but as doctors, educators and other professionals.

"I encourage each one of you today to make sure that you've got a goal that is high," Bell said. "Don't set your goals low; fly 'em with the eagles. Stay away from the pigeons, get up there with the eagles, and you can do some great and awesome things."

Black Achievers members said they are taking Bell's advice to heart.

Aaron McFarland, 13, said he hopes to go to law school and become a U.S. representative, and Michael Franklin, 15, said he wants to go to college and pursue a career in law enforcement.

Franklin said he believes Bell's advice that anything is possible with enough determination.

"I see people struggle and they come out of it because they never give up," he said.

Black Achievers is a youth mentoring program open to students in grades six through 12. Since it was started at the Hagerstown YMCA in 2004, all of its participants have graduated from high school and 65 percent have gone on to college, program officials said.

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