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Black History Month event celebrates achievements, culture

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The patented inventions of African Americans from 1840 to 1980 are featured on Helen Wakefield’s office door and have led to a Black History Month celebration this Friday. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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One woman’s idea to celebrate her own cultural roots and the achievements of other black Americans has turned into a community Black History Month celebration.

Helen Wakefield, a youth transition specialist working in the Roswell office of the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, has organized an event open to the public, with a special invitation to black youth in foster care and black foster parents, as well as their family and friends.

The first annual CYFD Black History Month Celebration will occur Friday from 4 to 6 p.m. in a meeting room at the CYFD Protective Services Office at 4 Grand Avenue Plaza.

Wakefield moved to Roswell from the Chicago, Illinois, area in July 2019. She said she was surprised that there weren’t any type of Black History Month celebrations in the city that she was aware of, so she decided to mark the month in her own way.

“I just felt like there wasn’t a celebration of what I am used to … of my history and culture,” she said. “One thing that is done in the department is that people decorate their doors (for birthdays and holidays). So I decorated my office door.”

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She decided to post the patented inventions of African Americans from 1845 to 1980, 10 pages of them from a list that began to be compiled during the late 1800s and early 1900s by a U.S. Patent Office employee.

A letter that accompanies the list indicates that laws and discrimination of that period made it difficult for African Americans to enter legal or contractual agreements and that, oftentimes, products and works developed by slaves became the inventions of others.

In spite of the difficult circumstances, the patents obtained by African Americans during that time and in the decades that followed, number in the thousands. According to the U.S. Patent Office, the inventions of black Americans have included railway telegraphy, air brakes, a prosthetic arm and a laser device for cataract surgery.

Wakefield also highlighted a more recent, light-hearted invention with a separate sign on her door: the Super Soaker water gun, of which more than 1 billion have been sold. It was invented by Lonnie Johnson, an aerospace engineer.

Once co-workers and management began looking at her door, they suggested that she hold a Black History Month event for black youth and black foster care parents. But the decision also was made to allow anyone who wants to attend to do so.

The event is scheduled to begin with a 30-minute program to include a talk by special education teacher and Roswell City Councilor Angela Moore, a Harriet Tubman presentation, the singing of the National Anthem, music by a local DJ, a photo corner with some cultural garments and backdrops, and a game that Wakefield has made about the black American inventions.

There also will be food and some small gifts for youth. She is donating some of the items, with other contributions coming from CYFD employees and community residents, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell, Marshall’s and Dollar General.

She said that she thinks it is important for black youth especially to hear the message that their lives have purpose.

“To hear, ‘You are special. You are beautiful,’” Wakefield said. “You are not the sum total of where you are now. There is greatness in you.”

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