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KERA Voices: Meet North Texans Who Are Making Black History

This Black History month, we're looking at artists, educators and leaders in North Texas who face challenges in their communities -- and the world outside them -- by creating something new. As a part of KERA Voices: Making Black History, they share stories of their work and lives.

David Small: Adjusting expectations    

David Small founded the Texas Black Film Festival in 2007 to counter the ways black people were typically portrayed onscreen. This year’s festival was held recently, and one of the selections, called “Resilient,” explored the history of the black Catholic congregation at St. Anthony's Catholic Church in South Dallas. Small, who’s an entertainment attorney, can relate personally to the film.  

“I grew up here in Dallas, a product of 12 years of private Catholic school,” Small said. “Catholic churches in Dallas used to be segregated and so I remember going in elementary school to Immaculate Heart of Mary, which was a black Catholic school, and it shut down when I was in the second grade, because the schools were no longer segregated.”

Small continued: “After my father passed away, my mother paid my law school tuition. They come from … that post World War II era where education was seen as the only way for African-Americans to really secure middle-class status. And they don’t understand people that don’t have that focus.

“I guess that is probably why I have the shocked reaction when I see people have such low expectations for some people here in the African-American community because I come from a background where the expectation is very high and you hold people to those standards.

“I still have moments now where someone may hear about me at some trial or something," Small said. "And when they come to the office may be standing there with a couple of other attorneys on the floor. And they will shake hands with every other attorney other than me, because like, they’ll be white, because it never would dawn on them that I’m the guy they’re looking for.”

Shay Youngblood: Taking a seat at the writer's table 

She thought the letter must be meant for another Shay Youngblood. When the young writer, who now lives in Denton, was accepted to the Yaddo arts community in the fall of 1985,  she didn't have a book to her name - just some short stories about the women who raised her in Columbus, Ga. But Youngblood was known, and she was chosen.  

She revisits her first day at the mansion in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where James Baldwin and Langston Hughes also wrote. Just waiting for the first dinner bell to chime was torture for Youngblood.

"I remembered this story about Carson McCullers who wrote ‘Member of the Wedding.’ She is from my hometown of Columbus, Georgia. And in the biography it said that she was so afraid of going down to dinner and she was so shy that she stayed in her room for  3 or 4 days drinking and didn’t come down.

"And I thought, 'I’m not going to be like that, I’m going to be brave and go down!' So I walk down the red carpeted staircase, I cross the great hall, I walked into the dining room and I heard this voice say, 'Oh, Shay! I’ve been waiting on you!'

"And it was a tall white woman with bright white hair, the most beautiful blue eyes. Her name was Virginia Spencer Carr, and she was Carson McCullers’ biographer, and she had heard that I was coming, and knew that I was from Columbus, Georgia. And she gave me the warmest welcome I think I’ve ever had anywhere," she says.

Chris Avant: Reclaiming language, healing a community through hip-hop

Rapper and radio DJ Chris Avant grew up in southeast Denton – a neighborhood that’s been culturally and economically isolated from the rest of town. He makes music under the name AV the Great, inspired by his childhood home on Alexander Street. 

"When we grow up there, in that square, it’s a county jail, it’s a courthouse, it’s a city jail, it’s a graveyard, and it’s an alternative school right there. That’s my area. That’s where we come from. When you grow up, that’s all you see," he says. "I was on the streets, I was selling drugs. I was just trying to get a job and I was getting turned down every day.”

Then he did get a job – as a DJ at K104. The same friends he ran with during hard times now hear him on the radio as Chris Cole. And he’s reached back out to his neighborhood and beyond by sponsoring rap and beat battles – lyrical contests he says help young people channel frustrated energy, provide an venue for networking, and encourage devotion to craft. 

“Hip hop is our art form, it’s a competition – it’s like a full contact sport with words, who can use their mind the best. Instead of feeling like you have to get violent. That’s what hip hop allows you to do – that’s what these raw and underground battle events do.”

With roots in the underground and influence on a wider audience, Avant brings a positive message everywhere he goes -- to clubs like Dan's Silverleaf in Denton where bills almost always lean alt-country or indie rock, big rooms in Dallas, or meeting and greeting at K104 events. 

“What’s a G? It’s not gangsta to me. G is grown man. You’re supposed to uplift your community and keep it safe."

Michael Sorrell: 'Sometimes you have to build it and watch them come'

Michael Sorrell is the president of Paul Quinn College in South Dallas, a historically black school in a struggling neighborhood. One of its core problems -- ­ residents don't have access to healthy food, which is why the area is labeled a food desert. So Sorrell raised the money to turn Paul Quinn's football field into the two acre "We Over ME Farm." He hopes to open a grocery store to serve South Dallasites.

I met him while he waited at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport for a flight to Philadelphia, where he's earning his doctoral degree in upper education management at the University of Pennsylvania. Sorrell explained that he knows the need for more food options in South Dallas because he felt it himself.

"When we started out, we were working 18-hour days. And you fall into bad habits. You want to talk about a tangible image: ­Me going from 225 pounds to 235 pounds and having to let my suits out and get  bigger clothes and realizing that the reason for this is because I  don't have access to healthy food," he says.

"Now, I know better. I was a  college athlete. I work out six days a week. I eat what I'm supposed to eat. But its an access issue. And that hit home for us. So when people started telling us no, and kept telling us no. And I'm watching the results of those answers, you know, you become furious."

We'll add more stories through the month of February. If you know a forward-thinking black leader with a story that belongs here, Tweet @ltknecht

Lyndsay Knecht is assistant producer for Think.