Blair County NAACP celebrates 100 years and looks ahead to holding public officials accountable
The Blair County branch of the NAACP marked its 100 year anniversary at its “Freedom Fighter Gala” last week in Altoona.
Holsey and other speakers highlighted the history of the group and future plans. Holsey said the group is planning to take a more direct approach in shaping legislation and holding public officials accountable through litigation.
“Since its inception, the branch has emphasized strengthening the community while fighting injustice," said president Andraé Holsey to gala attendees.
The Blair County branch of the NAACP was formed in 1923 to stand up against the Ku Klux Klan. Event honoree Alice Lawrence was born five years later in 1928. She celebrated her 95th birthday two weeks ago, and as everyone sang her "Happy Birthday," Lawrence laughed at her table. She was given a certificate of achievement for her work with the group.
Lawrence served on the executive board of the Blair County NAACP for decades under previous president Don Witherspoon. During that time, the group addressed racism in local education and visited local state prisons. During the Civil Rights Movement, members took a bus to Washington D.C. They stood in the front row during Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Karen Ferguson took the stage to speak about Lawrence’s work, while Lawrence watched from the crowd.
“Miss Alice's mission throughout her life is to help whenever called upon, especially at our home church at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, her community and the Blair County branch of NAACP, Amen," Ferguson said.
Many of the speakers talked about the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Altoona, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. It’s another county institution that has worked for racial justice. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Ron Darbeau is the chancellor of Penn State Altoona. He gave the event’s keynote speech.
“The advancement of colored persons is, at its very core, the advancement and security of the human family. And because it is the survival of all, it is the fight not only of the NAACP, and God bless them for their efforts, but of all Americans. Indeed, of all of humanity everywhere," Darbeau said.
Darbeau thanked the Blair County NAACP for its work to advance civil rights over the past century.
At the event, President Holsey mentioned one of the group’s biggest past achievements: a bill to make it easier to prosecute people for burning crosses to intimidate others. In 1995, the Blair County branch and then state Senator Bob Jubelirer co-authored Senate Bill 223. It amended the existing law on criminal trespass, making it clear starting a fire on someone’s property is illegal.
In a legislative journal, Jubelirer said a problem became apparent when a cross burning case in Blair County did not result in a conviction. He said similar cases across the state were either not prosecuted or given lesser charges.
Even with advancements like Senate Bill 223, speakers, including Ron Darbeau, said there is still work to be done.
“To use the theme for this evening's celebration: the fight ain't finished yet,” said Darbeau.
The Blair County NAACP looks toward the future
The day before the gala, Blair County NAACP President Andraé Holsey was setting up in his new office in downtown Altoona.
Holsey has a lot to juggle between the NAACP, his job at a community watchdog organization and taking care of his 4-month-old daughter, who he brought with him to the office.
Holsey has been the branch’s president for about two-and-a-half years, since he was 22 years old.
“It's overwhelming. Not only because I'm super young in this position, and we went through a pretty drastic change in 2021," Holsey said.
Previous president Don Witherspoon died in late 2020 and most of the executive committee resigned.
Despite the civil rights advancements of the past century, Holsey said the NAACP still has plenty of work to do. He said it’s time for the Blair County branch to turn to a more direct approach.
“This year, we're going to be looking to engage in litigation. It's about time that public officials who are not answering to the will of the people are held accountable. And if they don't respond to sit downs and private meetings and memorandums, then the next step is court," Holsey said.
Holsey said they’re primarily concerned about unfair practices they say they’ve seen in the courts surrounding drug possession. He said the Blair County NAACP branch is working with the Pittsburgh, Greensburg, State College and Johnstown branches.
“And we're seeing many of the same issues, particularly ‘possession’ versus ‘possession with intent’ differences between racial groups, and the sentencing of minority defendants in criminal trials. And many of them don't feel that they have civil recourse. We need to rectify that wrong," Holsey said.
Holsey said the branch has enough members and community support to start litigating cases. But he said some recent events have made them concerned about safety. He said a woman helping with their investigations led the Blair NAACP to file several Right to Know requests.
“And very shortly thereafter, her former house in Greensburg was set on fire. Two to three weeks after that our office was vandalized. We don't know for sure if that's correlated or not. But there are concerns," Holsey said.
Despite those concerns, Holsey said their investigations are not in danger. He said each file is backed up in multiple locations.
“And you know, we're not going to back away from the facts in spite of threats of danger," Holsey said.
Holsey said they expect it will be difficult to go against elected officials and challenge the community’s beliefs. But, he said, the work is worth it to improve Pennsylvania over the next century, especially for his daughter.
“Hopefully, it's a better Central Pennsylvania and a better country for my little one than it was when I was growing up," Holsey said.