Attorney Marian Wright Edelman was the first African American woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar. She is often quoted as saying, “If you do not like the way the world is going, you have an obligation to change it. Just do it one step at a time.”
Ernestine Gates is a prime example of Edelman’s conviction. Despite enduring the horrific 2011 North Minneapolis tornado and a stroke a few years back, Gates continues her community efforts to work with children and parents to implement programs that benefit the community. Her work includes heavy involvement in a ministry that provides holistic services.
“We have to have guidance and discipline when dealing with the public and community,” Gates said. “There are many different communities even inside your household. You have to figure out how to make these communities come together.”
Gates was born in Batesville, Mississippi and later moved to Memphis, Tennessee as a little girl. “We came from segregation, on the north side of the train tracks,” she recalled.
She even remembers rock-and-roll legend Elvis Presley in his early days. “He lived on the south side of the tracks and played with my sisters and cousins [who played guitar]. One day he suddenly felt superior and said, ‘I don’t want no n***er shining my shoes.’ Of course, he didn’t feel that way when he was sitting at the table eating black-eyed peas with us. I did, however, get a chance to tell him about himself,” Gates said.
Similar to Edelman, who helped create the Head Start program in 1965, Gates (then Ernestine Wright) was instrumental in developing the summer school program at Richard Green Elementary School. As one of the parent coordinators, she helped organize Parents in Community Action (PICA).
“We sat down, wrote a grant and set up jobs so parents could work and be with their children,” Gates recalled. “They also had classes for fathers to obtain [work in] janitorial positions and as teachers’ aides. This was how the name and program Parents in Community Action was created.”
Gates said Richard Green Elementary School was the first on Fourth Avenue with an extended school day program. “Mothers lacked daycare when they went to work. We had children from Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, Richfield, Bloomington, St. Louis Park, and even students from St. Paul who would try and come to Minneapolis for the extended school day program. We had over 1,500 children overall.”
She noted, “I’m glad to see and I’m very proud to know that PICA is still going strong. When you plant that seed, it will grow. If you want to make good of the community, don’t do something and hold on to it.
“When I see those children on the corner waiting for the bus stop, and I see those buses ride by that say Parents in Community Action, it lets me know the legacy is still going on. It’s not something I did by myself — we [the community] did it together.”
She remembered the Fourth Avenue Parade marching to Sabathani Community Center on 38th Street. “We had a festival with the churches, including the Baptist, Catholic and Christian churches. We took the parade down Central. We couldn’t go up Lake Street as it was too busy, so we took 31st Street instead.”
Back in 1978, Gates created the Black History Celebration to educate the community on Black leaders beyond Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X. “There’s Black history right here in Minneapolis,” she said.
Gates also hosted “Mystery Lady,” a three-hour blues show on KFAI every Wednesday afternoon. She mentored renowned KMOJ host Chaz Millionaire, host of the Sunday afternoon show “Jazz Reflections.” And every Sunday morning, she hosts a weekly gospel program, “Songs of Praise,” from 6 to 8 am.
Through her actions, Gates shows how mentoring and “planting seeds” are essential to future generations, in particular with the current state of affairs. “Every time you turn around, a little boy, little girl, or teenager is being killed. That is a bother to me,” Gates expressed. “So many children have not had guidance or nurturing, and some of us as parents have strayed away.”
That concern motivated her to start the “Plant a Smile” program, created in the early 1990s. “I would just see kids playing and I would just walk up to them and ask them, “How would you like for me to work with you? That’s how I got the [Sabathani] drill team started.”
The program entailed children planting seeds in a cup and distributing the cups to nursing homes in the neighborhood. “If you see a child, give them a smile. That smile that you planted on that child will make all the difference.
“Remember, you can make it regardless of your situation. God is your keeper and your guide. Don’t put trust in man because he will let you down every time.”
Ivan B. Phifer welcomes reader responses at email@example.com.
Ivan B. Phifer is contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org