“You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
These words remind us why we dedicate MLK Day to community service. This year, those of us at Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area had a truly transformational experience for a special MLK Day service event for Flat Rock. The event began at 11 am under the big tent at the Flat Rock Archives with free tours and welcome speeches from Arabia Alliance Executive Director Revonda Cosby and the board president of the Flat Rock Archives Cheryl Moore-Mathis.
With our breath hanging in the air, we figured we would get a few dozen helping hands. Imagine our surprise when some 200 volunteers showed up. It was heartening talking to so many DeKalb County locals and youth volunteers from the East Suburban Atlanta Chapter of the Jack and Jill Foundation, Inc.
“Flat Rock Archives and its partnership with Jack and Jill is the beginning of a true youth-and-family service model,” said Revonda Cosby. “Having conversations with these Jack and Jill high schoolers and their parents, it was obvious the baton of community service was passing from parent to child. I’ve seen by how they work and the consistency of their work that Jack and Jillers make service a lifelong commitment.”
A visit to Lyon Farm
Participants were bused over to Lyon Farm for a tour of the plantation with the dubious distinction of being the forced home for those who founded Flat Rock Community after emancipation. “It was solemn, and I was honored to be present at Lyon Farm for this experience,” said Jennifer Dickie, Arabia Mountain Program Manager. Dickie told the story of those enslaved at Lyon Farm and how, after emancipation, they helped create Flat Rock and other resilient African American communities. “It felt very private in a very public place, and I was moved and humbled to be a witness to it.”
Hands on Service for Everyone
After Lyon Farm, the buses stopped at the historic Flat Rock Cemetery to let the teens and their families out to remove dumped tires and downed limbs, conduct a tree inventory, and even do some grave identification. 20-25 youths along with other volunteers collected 51 tires and piled up enough limbs to fill up several parking spaces. They were led by the NHA’s Roving Ranger Joel Slaton, who reflected on his memories of attending Dr. King’s funeral in 1968. “My mother made sure to take us down to watch the procession leaving Ebenezer Baptist Church,” Slaton recalled. “As it went by, my mother said, ‘This is a great man.’ She then joined the procession and went to South-View Cemetery for the burial and that’s when I saw the beautifully decked out people crying their eyes out. And my mother stayed and signed us into the burial book. I’d just turned six. It’s one of my earliest memories.”
Staff and the rest of the families with younger children returned to Flat Rock Archives, which is housed inside the historic T. A. Bryant homestead. We worked up an appetite fence painting, gardening, and making quality-of-life bags (stuffed with tasty snacks) for the whole community.
When the teens returned from the cemetery, we ate lunch while youth leaders gave end-of-day reflections. Arabia Mountain NHA and the Wardlaw Family Foundation gave a check worth $40,000 to Flat Rock to continue to reach its mission and goals. The check was presented from Cosby to Moore-Mathis and the homestead’s descendent Patricia Bryant.
A Special Guest!
But the big surprise was an unannounced appearance, during the closing ceremony, of famed actor and comedian Chris Tucker. “Flat Rock is my family,” said Tucker, the great grandson of TA Bryant Sr., who helped save the small rural town during the Great Migration. Through our sweat and hard work, we all felt like a bit of a family that day.
“When I think about this day in totality,” said Cosby, “to stand in a historic cemetery and hear our Roving Ranger share his own slice of Dr. King’s life, my slice of Dr. King’s life, well, it was phenomenal to me. It really changed my perspective.”