This Saturday is Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the abolition of slavery in the United States. It was established when the ratification of the Emancipation Proclamation was announced in Texas, on June 19, 1865, one year and six months after it was signed. As a Confederate State Texas was unwilling to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, but was forced to follow it after the Civil War ended.
In honor of Juneteenth, this post is all about Black Excellence written by some excellent Black older buds. Enjoy!
Shirley Conners, Dance Pioneer
Philadelphia Senior Center’s Shirley Conners, a long time member of 509 Broad Street, is a stately, quiet, and always an immaculately attired individual who has had a life long love affair with dance.
She is a member of an artistic, internationally historical family. Her second cousin is none other than Mariano Anderson and she is third cousin to the renown classical pianist James DePriest, the son of the late Dick Anderson, Former Captain of the All Afro American Phila Detective squad during the 1940’s and 50’s.
Shirley started dancing at the age of 4 or 5, according to her, at a facility called Prestin’s which was located 16th and Chestnut street. Faculty at this facility taught music dance and signing.
Later she studied at the legendary Sydney King Studio where she became friends and danced with Joan Myers, founder of Philadanco.
During her high school years Shirley and her dance crew would go to New York to study under the Queen of Afro Interprative Dance Katherine Dunham.
Shirley danced with the Sydney King group throughout different arenas in Phila, like Town Hall and The University of Penn.
She stated that they won first place on the Wheel of Fortune but because they were an Afro Group their performance was not shown on television.
Shirley’s picture at age 19 appears in a book entitled the Audacity of Hope, which was written by Joan Myers and traces the history of black ballerinas in Phila. Shirley was also involved as a dancer for several years with the Phila Xmas Cotillion that took place from 1949-1959, and mostly held at the old convention hall in West Philly. That event was renown and was written up in Newspapers (white and Black) throughout the nation. The event initiated by Eugene Wayman Jones, professor at Temple Union, started out catering to privileged Afro American youth and eventually incorporated youth from the neighborhoods in Phila. This annual event would have hundreds of youth participating in tuxedos and evening gowns. Our Shirley Conners is a pioneer in the dance.
I’m in a group called Toastmasters. In Toastmasters just last night, my role was to be a Grammarian. So, as a Grammarian, one thing you do is you pick out a word. You define a word, and then the speakers try to incorporate the word in a conversation. Last night, I chose the word “ostentatious,” which means “attracting or seeking to attract attention, admiration, or envy by gaudiness or obviousness; overly elaborate, et cetera.” So it’s ironic that that was the word because the assignment I thought was talking about clothing and so I wrote when I was little girl, I attended a local Catholic School. Uniforms were required. On Sundays, Mom and I were members of the church to celebrated mass and holy days of obligation. My grandparents however joined the local Baptist church. Clothing on a Sunday was a planned event in which only our finest clothes would be appropriate. My nana was dressed up with a big beautiful hat, gloves, matching outfit that included matching heels, pocketbook and a mink around her shoulders. Grandpop looked debonair in a tailored suit and fancy hat. Mom boasted that we were the best-dressed family in the neighborhood. That didn’t mean much to me but this was my family.
A boutique that sold one-of-a-kind fancy clothes for children was nearby. I was the only girl, the oldest grandchild, so needless to say I had many fancy, frilly dresses with crinoline slips, matching patent leather shoes, gloves, hats corresponding to the handbag, et cetera. Dressing well was a top priority for our family. Favorable appearances and impressions meant everything at the time. I can picture orange high heels in my mother’s shoe closet. Mom enjoyed dancing in the Cotton Club of Harlem, so she had to look the part. It’s time for dress. We went to John Wanamaker’s to purchase her attire, which then was pretty good. However, my personality while playing as a rambunctious daughter: I did not look very presentable at the end of the day, as my hair ribbons were torn, clothes wrinkled, and shoes were scuffed out. My tomboyish behavior was embarrassing for my mom. She would summarize me to come into the house, change into clothes and shoes et cetera, just consumed with the question, “What are the family, church people, neighborhood thinking about us?” So for me, that was pretty hard that I was her daughter because she was trying to be so pristine and always worrying about what people thought, and I didn’t. I could care less. I just wanted to have fun, and I did.
Now, even to her death when she was very well dressed. I found I went to Lord and Taylor and they had very beautiful couture dress, I forgot the designer right now to be honest, but light blue was her favorite color, and I purchased the dress. I took it to my mother, and she did wear it. We didn’t talk about it, but I knew even at death when she was laid out in the casket, she had on that beautiful dress, that couture, and we had a fancy hat on her, and because to her how you looked meant a lot, to me I learned that it doesn’t. But I guess that I was just a little of a misfit of a daughter for her because even as I got, even when I was in my forties I would go to church with her, and by that time, she converted to the Baptist religion, and she said, “Is this what you’re going to wear?” and I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Go to my closet and see what else you can find,” because we were about the same size, but she didn’t approve. Even to the day I like clothes, I’ll either dress very good or casual. I have very little in-between. But clothes are certainly not a priority for me and they never will be. So “ostentatious” was definitely an adjective that describes the way my family saw clothing and impressions.
Don’t Be Afraid of Growing Old
As I was approaching my senior years, I noticed that some would overly be concerned about them coming into their senior years. We don’t know how we’ll turn out but all we have to do is continue to be ourselves.
Hopefully as we grow older, we have also grown spiritually. The way we’ll be able to also grow gracefully.
This Sunday, if I’m still here, I’ll be eighty years old. For some reason I’ve become very excited about it. I can hardly believe that I have lived (almost) eight decades.
As I think about what I’ve been through here on this Earth, I’m constantly thanking and praising God for bringing this far.
As I go through my senior years, I have to laugh because some of the changes I’ve been through and still are going through are just funny.
For instance one minute I’m just fine and feeling great and the next minute here comes a slight pain out of nowhere. And I’ll say now where did that come from? Then it’s gone like it never happened.
I talk to myself a lot and I laugh at myself a lot. In the morning when I’m in the bathroom I look in the mirror to see what I look like noticing the sagging of my body and the wrinkles, and the bags under my eyes and I make ugly faces at myself and tell myself that this is what I’m supposed to look like at my age so stop trying to find that youthful look that I used to have.
I’ve never had a problem of growing old, I’ve just kept being me and thanking God constantly for keeping me all these years
Curated by Caitlin Cieri