Community members mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of...

Community members mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 at Hempstead High School Auditorium on Wednesday, July 2, 2014. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Students, religious leaders and Nassau County officials, gathered at Hempstead High School Wednesday night to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The Hempstead Public School District, in partnership with the Alumni of Hempstead Public Schools, honored community leaders for their work in public education, genealogy, and the fight for justice and equality.

About 400 people attended the event inside the campus auditorium.

Barbara Powell Sr., 82, former longtime president of the Hempstead branch of the NAACP, was given the Big Six Civil Rights Award, for dedicating her life to civil rights issues.

Village of Hempstead Trustee Don Ryan accepted an award on behalf of the Neighborhood Youth Corp, part of federal Job Corp program, which provides work experience opportunities for young people.

"I'm thrilled to see so many Hempstead High School alumni present," said Ryan, a member of the class of '61, before he accepted the A. Phillips Randolph Award. "It's always a good time to have something to give the kids some hope for the future. And we have great kids."

The event also showcased the talent of many of Hempstead High School's students, beginning with drum performances by Fred Berryhill, Joel Berryhill, and Keith White, who attended the high school in the 1960s. The three honed their drumming and dancing skills as teenagers at the African-American Experience, a weekend program for students from Hempstead and surrounding areas that taught African drumming, dancing, and history, Fred Berryhill said.

As various speakers addressed the audience from the podium, about 15 pre-K students from Marshall School in Hempstead lined up on stage and waited, hands clasped and heads bowed, to perform a song about hope.

Latoya Durham, class of 2006, proudly watched her 5-year-old daughter, Kelis Banks, who was featured center-stage during the performance. Afterward, Durham said the event was a worthy tribute for the anniversary of such a legal milestone in the history of African-Americans and other minorities in the United States.

"It was excellent -- great," said Durham, who is African-American. "It teaches us where we came from and all the great moments of our culture."

The ceremony also included a modern dance number from class of 2009 graduate Sabra Bailey and a stirring recital of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech by 13-year-old Andrew Culbreath.

"It's important that we're having this event here at the high school . . ." said Hempstead deputy Mayor Waylyn Hobbs Jr. "This is to remind us as a community that we as a people have struggled over other issues and we can struggle with this issue, work together, and turn around our school district and our village."

Jamise Porterfield, an African-American and a Queens resident who works and attends church in Hempstead, said she was happy her family could participate. Her husband volunteered as a lighting and sound technician, and their son, Pierre, 6, was his assistant.

"I think it's very important for him to understand his own history and for him to see it with his own eyes," she said of Pierre as she glanced over to the little boy who had nodded off in a chair. "Well, until he conked out."

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