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Memphis Urban League powering forward after 75th gala

by Terrisa Coreen Mark, Special to The New Tri-State Defender

Presented with a special diamond-shaped award, Memphis Urban League (MUL) Board Chairperson Felicia Bean Barnes promptly moved to give it to one she thought more deserving – MUL President/CEO Tonja Sesley-Baymon.

The gesture, which came during MUL’s 75th Anniversary Gala Celebration at the Hilton Memphis (Sept. 20), was in keeping with what many know about Barnes – that she is humble and discerning.

Clearly taken aback, Sesley-Baymon acknowledged Barnes’ sincerity, pointing out, however, that the award had Barnes’ name on it and insisting that Barnes accept, which she did.

As part of its effort to raise funds for outreach the Memphis Urban League has available signature shoes adorned with its logo. (Photos: Tyrone P. Easley)

The scenario reflected the evenings’ dual tone of heartfelt appreciation and fun. The gala drew several hundred people, including Mayor Jim Strickland and Circuit Judge Gina Higgins, who delivered the invocation.

“Tonight, is a celebration, it is about remembering our past, celebrating our present and looking forward to our future with great anticipation,” said Sesley-Baymon.

The special night yielded awards in several focus areas, beginning with the HOPE (Having Opportunity to Pursue Empowerment) Diamond honorees acknowledged for exceptional work in their fields and endeavors. Among the HOPE awardees was Beverly “Bev” Johnson, who has been a part of WDIA radio station for the last 36 years and was the first African-American woman inducted into the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame earlier this year.

“I have been doing the ‘Bev Johnson Show’ for 31 years, where I have kept Memphis talking. All I can say is this has been a good year,” said Johnson.

The other HOPE honorees were:

Louis “Bo” Allen, First Tennessee Bank; Rhonnie Brewer, Socially Twisted; Ruby Bright, Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis; Mauricio Calvo, Latino Memphis; Dr. Reginald Coopwood, Regional One Health; Bishop Ed Stephens Jr., Golden Gate Cathedral Church and David Williams, Leadership Memphis.

The Community of Champions award was given to The New Tri-State Defender, with special recognition of Calvin Anderson, board president of TSD’s parent company Best Media Properties, LLC, and Associate Publisher/Executive Editor Karanja A. Ajanaku.


“We work hard and we are a small staff. So, to get recognition, especially by the Urban League, is very gratifying,” said Ajanaku, who represented the TSD, thanked the staff and committed the news operation to writing the ongoing story of Memphis’ evolution.

Beverly Robertson, president of the Greater Memphis Chamber, accepted the I Am Empowered Award.

“I was tremendously honored and humbled to have been selected as the empowered leader as part of the Urban League’s 75th Anniversary Celebration,” said Robertson, the former president of the National Civil Rights Museum.

A posthumous award was accepted by the Rev. Janet White on behalf of her late husband, the Rev. Ralph White, community advocate and longtime pastor of Bloomfield Full Gospel Baptist Church.

Sesley-Baymon brought the evening to a close by recognizing Bean-Barnes, bestowing awards upon staff, detailing MUL work done and underway and hinting about a soon-to-be announced initiative, the League of Ladies.

Attendees, who were guided through the evening by emcees Michael Adrian Davis and Eileen Collier, ended the night on the dance floor, flowing with live music from the PC Band.

Contributions from the gala go to support MUL programs and initiatives.

The gala sponsors were TVA, Bean & Prince Contractors, Inc., FedEx, Allstate, Nike, Cigna, Comcast Foundation, Memphis Office of Youth Services, United Way, Women’s Foundation For A Greater Memphis, Asplundh, The Redwing Group and Waste Pro.

Engaged sponsors: ALSAC, First Tennessee Bank, Morning Star Church, Regional One Health, Brown Baptist Church, Golden Gate Cathedral, Memphis Branch NAACP, Southwest Tennessee Community College, City of Memphis, Mississippi Blvd. Christian Church and Nexstar Broadcasting/Local 24.

(To learn more about the Memphis Urban League, visit www.memul.org.)

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