A recent Sunday night was memorable. I was a guest at the Astoria Beneficial Club 110th Anniversary & Awards Celebration and it was an honor to be there. Their logo, “Celebrating a Rich Past: Making a Difference in the Future” is a succinct description but, for those unfamiliar with this organization, let me take you back 110 years to the Richmond of 1901.

Legislation (as well as the conclusion of the Civil War) dictated equality between races but the reality was less than hoped-for. Twenty two local men determined that the moral values, emphasis on intellectual growth and civic responsibility that they held dear could change lives in their world and so they have. Quietly, patiently, but with fierce determination, they set in motion an amazing organization that has impacted thousands of lives.

In 1901, Black people were denied insurance by white companies. To bury a loved one could decimate a family’s finance so social clubs, like Astoria, met needs with financial aid. They established scholarships enabling promising students to attend college, contributed to organizations including the NAACP, United Negro College Fund, United Way Services and Virginia Union University, and were the force that gave Richmond its Bill “Bojangles” Robinson Statue. Erected where Bill Robinson donated a street light to protect children crossing a dangerous intersection, it serves as a reminder of a Richmond boy who made good…and was good, a man who remembered his roots and, in doing so, became a role model that inspires dreams still.

The Astoria Beneficial Club’s work for civil rights has a long history, including encouraging voter registration and rights and equal pay for Black teachers and police officers.  Rooted in the historic Jackson Ward and Carver neighborhoods, the club’s existence alone is evidence of civil rights action.  In a community of Black businesses, including architects, teachers, pastors and more, the fact that The Astoria Beneficial Club has flourished for 110 years exemplifies the pride and sense of identify that they encourage.

Contributing funds to worthy projects is admirable but Astorians don’t stop there. They go to Richmond’s Fairfield Elementary School and mentor children through the Parental Assistance Leadership Services (PALS) Program, providing guidance, role models and the encouragement students need to reach beyond their surroundings and attain their goals.

The oldest Astorian, at 104, is Wesley Carter and he was my ‘date’ last night. Mr. Carter personifies  Astorian values, evidenced by the love he inspires in everyone he meets.  Former students stopped to pay respect and speakers spoke of his influence in their lives.  Pulling himself to his feet to sing the Astorian song, I was overwhelmed by admiration for this shining example of all that is good in our world.

I met Wesley Carter through his cousin, Barksdale “Barky” Haggins, whose business, Barky’s Spiritual Stores, was recipient of a corporate award last night. Mr. Barky is one of my treasured  sources of the history and people of Jackson Ward and Carver for my book in progress. I’m grateful for Mr. Barky’s help and even more thankful that he has shared his cousin with me.  Searching for volunteers for the oral histories I’m compiling for the book led me to the Astoria Beneficial Club but that search has also blessed me with friendships I’ll always treasure. Hopefully, the members will embrace my project and relate their stories of growing up in this historic neighborhood. They will most assuredly be more willing after last night.  Mr. Carter introduced me to the entire assembly, endorsed my book in his charming style and plowed through the room with his walker to make sure I met the people he determined were critical to my work.

As I followed him (there’s no aiding or steering Wesley Carter on the move!) to his car, he remarked with satisfaction “I got you some contacts, didn’t I?” and I assured him that he certainly did. As I kissed his cheek, I declared “Mr. Carter, you are the best P.R. man ever…and the best date I ever had!”  A memorable night indeed.

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