Black minister honored to be Columbus Day grand marshal

NEWS12 WESTCHESTER: The Rev. Gerald Washington will be the grand marshal of this year's Columbus Day parade in Port Chester. (Oct. 2, 2012)

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In what may be a nationwide first, a black minister has been chosen to be grand marshal of the Columbus Day parade in the village of Port Chester.

Sporadic rain forced the parade to be postponed, but the honoree, the Rev. Gerald Washington, likened the distinction to winning a sweepstakes.

"This is my lottery ... and I didn't buy a ticket or nothing like that," he said. "It came to me."

Columbus Day parades traditionally celebrate Italian heritage, and the title of grand marshal often goes to an Italian who has community ties. But this year, the Port Chester Columbus Day Committee extended its search beyond the usual ethnic bounds.

Silvio Buccieri, a former grand marshal and friend of Washington, said he's overjoyed by the selection.

"It's one of the most amazing things that ever happened," he said.

Reaching outside an ethnic or racial group to choose a grand marshal is not unprecedented. For instance, then-Mayor David Dinkins was a grand marshal of a Salute to Israel parade in New York City in the 1990s. Still, Washington said research librarians in New Rochelle and Larchmont were unable to come up with a single instance of an African-American grand marshal of a Columbus Day parade, Washington said.

Washington, a middle school teacher and Navy veteran, has served for three decades as minister at Port Chester's Bethesda Baptist Church. He also founded a summer reading camp for Port Chester schoolchildren.

Organizers rescheduled the parade for 2 p.m. Oct. 14.

Washington said that when he was in the Navy, he was stationed on a destroyer that docked in Norfolk, Va. There, he saw firsthand segregated bathrooms and lunch counters. That experience, he said, made him feel the impact of his appointment as grand marshal more keenly.

"This is huge," he said. "(The Rev.) Martin Luther King (Jr.) wanted a world where there would only be one race -- the human race."

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