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Heroes in Black History

February is Black History Month, and the Keene Family YMCA is celebrating by lifting up some of the many heroes in Black history whose accomplishments have not only helped shape America’s story but have impacted our global consciousness.

Black History Month does not just promote diversity; it celebrates diversity by honoring those men and women who have so profoundly impacted our lives through their courage, tenacity and commitment to social justice. Celebrating diversity brings us together. It helps us learn about and recognize our differences and to embrace them as an integral part of the fabric of our society.

We invite you to join us and to learn about the significant contributions of the Black community to America, and to the world. The lessons we learn provide us with a way forward by examining our past. In doing so, we shall find our way to a more equitable future.

Read on and celebrate with us some of the most influential Black voices in American history and beyond.

Duke Ellington

Portrait of a young Duke Ellington wearing a top hat.

Born in Washington, D.C., Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington rose to fame at Harlem’s Cotton Club in the late 1920s. His career as a musician, composer, and bandleader spanned more than 50 years.

Among his many compositions are hundreds of short pieces and more ambitious extended works, including operas, ballets, musicals, concert pieces (such as “Black, Brown and Beige”), and the “Sacred Concerts.”

He was decorated with numerous awards and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom – presented by President Nixon in 1969.


Duke Ellington was the most important composer in the history of American jazz and is widely considered one of the twentieth century’s best known African American personalities. He is most remembered for the more than 3000 songs that he composed during his lifetime.

Continue the Journey: 

Duke Ellington’s Monumental Music Journey
Video by Biography

“Duke Ellington’s Melodies Carried his Message of Social Justice
By Michelle R. Scott, Associate Professor of History, UMBC and Earl Brooks, Assistant Professor of English, UMBC

Billie Holiday

Portrait of jazz singer Billie Holiday

Considered by many to be one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time, Billie Holiday triumphed over adversity to forever change the genres of jazz and pop music with her unique styling and interpretation.

Holiday’s career began to grow, thanks in part to the interest of John Hammond of Columbia Records, who organized her first recording with Benny Goodman in 1933. She debuted at the Apollo Theater in 1935 and began recording under her own name in 1936.

Holiday, known for her deeply moving and personal vocals, remains a popular musical legend more than fifty years after her death. In spite of personal obstacles, Holiday inspired many with her vocal gifts and continues to be recognized as a seminal influence on music.

Billie Holiday died in 1959 at the age of 44.

–National Women’s Hall of Fame

Billie Holiday is remembered not only for her musical masterpieces and creativity, but also for her courageous views on inequality and justice. She was the first Black woman to work with a white band and produced what many consider to be the first protest song of the Civil Rights era, “Strange Fruit.”

Continue the Journey:

Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” at Café Society (1939)
Video by The Billie Holiday Experience

“Billie’s Story”
Biography by the official Bille Holiday website

The Story of Billie Holiday & Strange Fruit | United States vs. Billie Holiday
Scenes from the Hulu Original film released in 2021

James Brown

James Brown singing into a microphone

James Brown is one of the most influential musicians and entertainers of today’s popular music genres. Before there was Michael Jackson, Usher, or Chris Brown, there was James Brown. His remarkable achievements earned him the nicknames “Godfather of Soul” and “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.”

Born in South Carolina, Brown grew up in extreme poverty and amid the hard times of the segregated South. Gifted with a voice that could sing soulful, slow ballads as well as electrifying up-tempo tunes, Brown enjoyed an extremely successful career.  He was ultimately associated with an extraordinary number and range of memorable songs, distinctive dance steps, formative fashion trends, and even significant social issues.

Through his music and talent, James Brown inspired social movements in his time. Brown’s hit recordings of the 1960s have often been associated with the emergence of Black Nationalist movements, especially songs like “Say it Loud–I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968).

James Brown was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 1992, and was a 2003 recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor. He died in 2006 at the age of 73.

Continue the Journey:

James Brown: Are You Ready for Star Time?!?
Biography by Harry Weinger and Cliff White

James Brown: “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”
Video by Shout! Factory

John Lewis

Portrait of John Lewis

John Lewis was a stalwart figure in the Civil Rights Movement. Born February 21, 1940, he was among the original 13 Freedom Fighters. Until his death in 2020, he was the last surviving speaker from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.

Lewis served in the United States House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District from 1987 until his death in 2020. In addition to his work in congress, Lewis lived a legacy of civil rights and continued to fight for the disadvantaged throughout his entire career. He was known to his colleagues as “the conscience of the Congress.”

Lewis has been honored with numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal and the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for lifetime achievement.

John Lewis passed away on July 17, 2020. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis joined the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, was a Freedom Rider, spoke at the 1963 March on Washington and led the demonstration that became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Continue the Journey:

The life of US civil rights hero John Lewis
Video by Channel 4 News

John Lewis

Ella Fitzgerald

Portrait of young Ella Fitzgerald

When Ella was fifteen years old, she appeared as a contestant in a talent competition intending to dance. Her knees shook too much and so she sang instead – and was heard by a musician in the famed Chuck Webb Band. Webb brought the young girl along to sing for a one-night stand tryout, and the rest is history.

Fitzgerald was an inspiration for her lifetime of good works, receiving the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award of the Los Angeles Urban League, the first woman to receive it, for those who build bridges among races and generations. She received the National Medal of Arts, and was the first woman and first pop singer to receive the Lincoln Centre Medallion, previously awarded only to internationally-famed classical musicans. Her honorary doctorates, Grammys and other awards are almost numberless – and yet when we think of Ella, what we will always hear is that pure, passionate, endlessly creating voice, and the soul behind it, telling us what she knows about life and love and hope and courage.

–National Woman’s Hall of Fame

Ella Fitzgerald performed for packed houses all over the world. Her audiences were incredibly diverse, made up of all races, religions and backgrounds. Often they had only one thing in common -they all loved her.

Continue the Journey:

Ella Fitzgerald
Biography by the official website of Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald: Breaking Down Racial Barriers with Her Voice
By intern Rebecca Kuske, Smithsonian Music

Ella Fitzgerald – Summertime – LIVE! 1968

Lee Merritt

Portrait of Lee Merritt

The killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, on May 25, 2020, brought about a renewed focus on the deep-rooted racial injustices in the American criminal justice system. S. Lee Merritt, Esq. is a dedicated civil rights activist and trial attorney who is leading the fight for social justice.

Merritt is playing a crucial role not only as a legal representative, but also as a strong voice for the families impacted by continued acts of racial oppression.

He attended Temple University’s James Beasley School of Law, graduating in 2012. He then founded the Merritt Law Firm which represents victims of police brutality, official corruption, corporate discrimination and hate crimes.

In 2017 Merritt was #8 on The Root 100, an annual list of the most influential African Americans, ages 25-45. In March of 2021, he announced his intention to run for Texas Attorney General in 2022.Merritt continues to make an impact, standing on the front lines and making sure people know that Black lives matter. He represents the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson.

Continue the Journey:

Lee Merritt, Esq. | Teach. Unify. Defend.
Official website of the Merritt Law Firm

Louis Armstrong

Portrait of Louis Armstrong

From the beginning of his career as a bandleader, Louis Armstrong created ensembles to showcase his spectacular trumpet playing.  His music had such an important effect on jazz history that many scholars, critics, and fans call him the first great jazz soloist.

Now, thirty years after his death, Armstrong’s work as an instrumentalist and vocalist continue to have a profound impact on American music. As a black man living and working in a segregated society, he symbolized the civil rights struggle that was part of the changing America in which he lived.

Louis Armstrong deserves to be called a hero because of his dedication towards improving his musical skills, and his positivity which allowed him to triumph over poverty and racism, almost single-handedly creating a new form of music.

–World History Portal

Louis Armstrong recorded hit songs for more than fifty years. Dozens of his compositions have become jazz standards. In 1957, Armstrong was the only Black jazz musician to publicly speak out against school segregation.

Continue the Journey:

Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington “In A Mellow Tone” on The Ed Sullivan Show

Louis Armstrong Biography
By the Louis Armstrong House Museum

Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation
Official website

Nelson Mandela

Portrait of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, also known by his tribal name of Madiba, was born July 18, 1918, in Mvezo, South Africa. He was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader and philanthropist.

In his early years Mandela studied law and founded the first Black law practice to advocate against apartheid laws. As he became more active in anti-apartheid activist work, he was often a target for the authorities. He was arrested several times and in 1964 was sentenced to life in prison. Throughout his incarceration, Mandela remained a stanch advocate for anti-apartheid. He retained wide support among South Africa’s Black population, and his imprisonment became a cause celebrated among the international community that condemned apartheid. 

Mandela was released from prison in 1990 after 27 years in jail and went on to become the country’s first black head of state, and the first elected in a fully representative democratic election. He served from 1994 to 1999.  He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 along with then president de Klerk having led the transition of South Africa from apartheid and racial segregation to a multicultural democracy.

Nelson Mandela is the hero of the apartheid struggle. Mandela Day, observed on Mandela’s birthday, July 18, was created to honor his legacy by promoting community service around the world. Nelson Mandela died December 5, 2013 (aged 95) in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Continue the Journey:

The Biography of Nelson Mandela
By the Nelson Mandela Foundation

Nelson Mandela Gives Speech After Release From Prison on Feb 11, 1990
Video by NowThis News

Celebrating Black History Everyday, by Breaking Down Barriers to Healthy Living

African American boy in a field with a group of people in the background

The Keene Family YMCA is committed to providing everyone in our community with a supportive and welcoming experience. We are also deeply committed to ensuring that everyone, regardless of race, gender or background, has equal opportunity to experience all of the life-changing benefits of membership and participation at the Y.

In the wake of the pandemic, it has become increasingly clear that Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) face greater obstacles to living their best healthy lives. 

To be healthy, a person must not only have access to healthcare but also be able to obtain healthy food, and have a safe place to work, live and exercise. Community and social support also play an important role in removing barriers and making healthy living more accessible to all. 

The Keene Family YMCA seeks to mitigate these barriers by providing financial and community support to community members who identify as BIPOC.

To that end, we have established a BIPOC Scholarship Fund which will provide those who qualify with full membership to the YMCA, providing a means for them to live a healthier life. 

If you want to support the Keene Family YMCA’s BIPOC Scholarship Fund, click the link below to donate today.

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