February is Black History Month, a chance to learn more about how Black Americans have shaped United States history. This year takes on a greater importance than ever, according to Bethany Patterson, an activist in the Lockport community.
In late May 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, the world watched as George Floyd, a Black man, was choked by a police officer. Floyd’s death sparked a flurry of social justice debate and protests, some of which were violent, during a time when people were advised not to leave home except to do “essential” work.
Despite the public health crisis, many felt it was their duty to hit the streets in solidarity. In Lockport, Mayor Michelle Roman took a knee with Lockport police officers at city hall while protesters voiced their frustrations about social injustice.
As Black History Month arrived this year, the nation is coming out of a highly charged election as well as more news of Black deaths at the hands of police.
“With all the changes that are happening it just seems like our country has been divided and it’s a perfect opportunity to try to reach out to people and really be a part of positive change,” said Bethany’s father, Miles Patterson. “Making people more aware of – or conscious of – the racial injustice that is out there, and trying to do it in a way that is educational, obviously nonviolent.”
“Being that we have a mixed family, people know we’re not for a certain color of people, but are certainly for justice, and not injustice, which has no color.”
Miles Patterson, his wife Kathleen, and their three children, Vanessa, Anthony and Bethany, are a mixed race family of Lockport. The three adult children point to their father’s adherence to the principles of Martin Luther King Jr. as being a major factor in their lives. Miles said there are many things about King that demand his admiration.
“His intelligence, I would love to start with that,” Miles said. “Extremely intelligent. Also passionate about his religion and passionate about helping people.”
Dedication to qualities like these found a home in his children.
Vanessa Patterson-Bancroft, the oldest child, is a social worker in the Lockport City School District where she provides support to families and helps students through their years in the school system.
She said that while her mother, Kathleen Patterson, and her father both work within the Lockport City School District – Kathleen teaches at Anna Merritt Elementary, and Miles works as a mentor at the high school– they never pressured her to follow them and instead encouraged her to do what made her happy.
“This is just what I love, I absolutely love my job,“ she said. “I grew up watching them, they were really great role models. I grew up with tons of different students coming to our home for dinner. My parents had taken in kids when I was younger and I watched that and I loved that then, too. … My parents are kind of surrogate parents for probably hundreds of kids in the city.”
After applying for and being rejected from a teaching job in Lockport, Anthony Patterson, the middle child, moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he teaches seventh and eighth grade history.
“They definitely make me work, but I love it,” he said. “It’s right in the inner city. Our school is 99% black. Definitely a high needs school. 98% of the kids who are students there have free lunch and breakfast. You’re dealing with a lot there, but I love it.”
“It’s definitely different than Lockport. Lockport is predominantly white, even teachers. I never had a black teacher while I was in Lockport, and a lot of times I felt things that related to me weren’t included in the curriculum.”
Bethany is the youngest, and she has taken her father’s admiration of the civil rights leader and put it into action when she co-founded Citizens for Change in Lockport, a group dedicated to breaking down racial barriers through education and conversation.
“I’ve always known about injustices, and that there’s a lack of black representation in Lockport, but as far as taking it a step further, I’ll be the first to say, I did not take the initiative until George Floyd,” she said. “I call it my mixed-girl wake-up call. I looked at my own community and my own life, and realized that this just doesn’t sit well now.”
As for the parents, Miles and Kathleen, they’ve very proud of their children’s dedication in helping others, as well as, for embracing their identities, which includes a lot more than just complexion and skin tone.
“We have a passion to just trying to make some changes, starting with our own community. Realizing how important that is,” Miles said. “Small steps, eventually leading to larger steps, and our community is a perfect stepping stone, and a place for us.”
“It’s February, yes, it’s important,” Kathleen said. “It’s Black History Month, but I feel for the first time, it’s more than that.”
“Black History is always, it’s not just confined to a month.”