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Chilton’s Juneteenth Spotlight: Francine Lewis

By Elisabeth Altamirano-Smith/ Community Columnist

This year, 2021, Congress signed that Juneteenth is officially recognized as a federal holiday.

For those that are new to the term “Juneteenth” it is a day celebrating and commemorating the end of slavery within the United States. On June 19, 1865, a Union general rode into Texas to declare that the war had ended and that slaves had been freed. Although the war was over, much of African-American  history was recorded by grandparents’ testaments, trials and the heritage passed down through the generations by word of mouth; living through decades of tumultuous civil rights battles. Alongside their ancestors, key community leaders have also helped empower future generations of African-American youth to rise up from oppression and excel. Francine Lewis is one such community leader that donates her time to educate and empower young African-Americans. Lewis works at the Chilton County Department of Human Resources. When she is not working, dedicates her time to the West End Neighborhood Watch Program, which hosts numerous yearly events, including a scholarship program for rising college students.

Lewis, 48, grew up in Chilton County, remembers the positive impact and outreach the Neighborhood Watch program had on her life when she was a child.

“There were several people in the community that served as a mentor in my youth,” Lewis said. “My mother was always beside me, but there were two main women in the Neighborhood Watch program that encouraged and supported me. Willie Mae White and Geraldine Baker were especially supportive and mentored me.”

Lewis and others from the Neighborhood Watch program host multiple annual events such as fish fries, a Christmas Ball and a membership drive to raise money to fund scholarships for high school students.

“Students that are members of the Neighborhood Watch families may apply and submit an essay on ‘How to give back to the community,’” said Lewis. “That is how winning recipients are selected.”

Recognizing Black History is also a large annual event that Lewis helps organize. The event includes students selecting a key African-American that changed history to feature during the presentation. Students learn about their selected person’s history, prepare an entertainment portion of that person’s life through dance or theatre and present what they have learned to the community.

“Many times when the students are selecting someone for the Black History event they have a tendency to want to choose famous people from other areas, but there are many key African-American figures that are from here in Chilton County,” said Lewis. “These local people are part of history (as a whole), not just ‘black history.’

Lewis said that last year’s presentation had such a large attendance the Neighborhood Watch is looking for a larger venue to host the event for 2022. Although the Black History event is for all young African-American students in Chilton County to participate in, Lewis hope for the future is that eventually each town and city within Chilton County will have their own group that will come together and collaborate.

“We also have a community ‘May Day’ where we come together with other churches and organizations and set up tents,” said Lewis. “We have a fish fry and kickball. This year the planning of that was delayed because of COVID, but I hope to celebrate it later this year.”

Lewis is also excited about the prospect of planning and adding a Juneteenth celebration to the community’s event list for next year in 2022.

“All of this is to hopefully be a positive role model for our youth- black, white, whatever,” said Lewis. “I want all of our young people to have many good opportunities to choose from so that they can make the decision on what to do with their life. It is their decision. When we are studying key people for Black History, those people have already made history. If they can do it, it means it has been done before and our young people can do it, too.”

“The Neighborhood Watch Program is available to the community,” said Lewis. “If someone needs our help, we are here for you. You just have to let us know.”

West End Neighborhood Watch meets the first Thursday of every month at 6 p.m. at the E.M. Henry HeadStart Building, 413 14th Street, Clanton, Alabama.