The newly renovated city gym at the West Point recreation facilities could just has easily have been a church on Thursday night.
Children filled the room with songs and athletic coaches told those children – and adults – to work hard and keep God in their lives during the city’s seventh black history program.
“We should celebrate black history 365 days of the year,” said Councilwoman Sandra Thornton, who has organized the event since it started and was honored Tuesday night for her efforts. “We combine our black history celebration with all races. It’s unity for the community.”
The event started in 2007, honoring two residents in a small room. A few years ago it was held at City Hall and attendees burst from the doors. It’s been held in churches and this year – finally – moved to a city-owned space that was big enough to accommodate it. This year, the city honored eight residents and officials, along with about 150 students from local schools and coaches and players from the city’s recreation ball teams.
The West Point Elementary School Character Chorus sang two songs and Long Cane Middle School student Quintaveous Pittman Williams received a standing ovation for an a cappela rendition of the Negro Medley.
“This is a chance to recognize our history and celebrate our incredible future,” said West Point Mayor Drew Ferguson IV.
In a nod to its location, the theme this year was “Playing the Game of Your Life.” Featured speakers were Troup High School basketball coach Thermond Billingslea, who is retiring this year with 503 wins to his record after more than 30 years at Troup and Lanett, Ala., high schools, and David Rocker, the new coach of Point University’s football team.
Billingslea told students and residents in attendance never to wait too long to accomplish what needs to be done – and never quit.
“What if Michael Jordan had quit?” he asked.
“I want to encourage you all to continue on,” he said. “Do what’s right and remember, God comes first.”
Rocker said he was influenced by his mother who raised three boys but didn’t want her sons to be “dumb jocks.” When he came home one weekend and said he couldn’t handle going to school and playing football at Auburn University, she ordered him back in the car.
“She said, ‘You are a Rocker!’” Rocker said. “I took that to mean, be proud of who you are and what you represent.”
The city honored Billingslea for his service to the school system and youth, along with the following residents:
• Sybrenna Thornton, who has worked with the city’s recreation department since 1999;
• Marshon Harper, recently named the first black head football coach at Valley, Ala., High School;
• Christian Cumberlander and Maurice Swain. Cumberlander has a 4.2 GPA at his college in Matthews, N.C., and plans to be an electrical engineer. Swain has signed with Indiana University to play football;
• Carolyn Bailey, a local florist and decorator.
Sandra Thornton also surprised Councilman Ben Wilcox, honoring him for his work as a volunteer coach with the recreation department.