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Friday, December 5, 2008

A Wise and Gentle Soul

Posted By on Fri, Dec 5, 2008 at 10:22 PM

That’s how Judy Watts, the executive director of Agenda for Children, described Alma Watkins, who lost her life to cancer this week. I couldn’t agree more. I was saddened to read about her death when I read Lolis Elie’s column in today’s Times Picayune.

     Mama Alma — that’s how everyone knew her as — was a teacher in the New Orleans Public School system, but I knew her from her work after she retired from NOPS, but not from teaching. Mama Alma and the Umoja Committee, a group she founded in 1988, aspired to let African American children know that their lives had value. Every year, Mama Alma and the committee would put together the Celebration of the African American Child, which is still held every spring in Congo Square.

     I have a very strong memory from spring ’05 (and it’s hard to recall much in 2005 before the levees failed) of my daughter Claire, then all of 16-months-old, standing in a prayer circle with many other kids in Congo Square on a bright sunny morning, just before the start of the celebration. Standing directly behind the kids in our own circle are us parents and other adults, symbolizing that we will always support and love our children: we have your back.

     The group also puts on annual Kwanzaa programs throughout the city, and when I worked with the New Orleans Public Library, I was fortunate enough to have Mama Alma and others, including Olayeela Daste, come to various NOPL locations to celebrate and tell the story of Kwanzaa. Daste recalls the serendipitous nature of her finding Mama Alma and the Umoja Committee.

     “In life, you meet people right at the right time, and I had six small children and I wanted to affect not just their lives, but other children as well,” Daste says. “Mama Alma called us together and created a way we could work with a larger group of children and our own children as well.”

            Kanika Murphy, another member of the Umoja Committee, says Mama Alma wanted to prepare children and teach them about their own history.

     “That they came from a culture rich in history and it was before the enslavement,” Murphy says.

            Daste says there is no doubt that Mama Alma succeeded. Today, many of those that experienced the first Umoja Committee programs are now members of the committee themselves, passing on what they’ve learned to the next generation.

     A life well lived.

     Services for Mama Alma will be held tomorrow at noon at Christian Unity Baptist Church at 1700 Conti Street.

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