Times may change, but the spirit of the annual Continuing His Dream & Works program’s message of honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy remains the same.
The ninth annual event has transitioned from an in-person to a virtual experience in recent years due to the pandemic. Despite the format change, event organizer, motivational speaker and civil rights activist Charles “Alex-Zan” Alexander said he is excited by the opportunity the digital release offers.
“While we certainly miss being able to hold the event in person, this gives us the opportunity to share the program with more people,” he said. “You can call up your out-of-town family and show them the program, share a bit of Charlottesville with them.”
A key feature of each year’s event is the Alicia B. Lugo award, named after the Charlottesville civil rights trailblazer and first Black woman to chair the Charlottesville School Board.
This year’s recipient is Nikuyah Walker, who just finished two terms serving as Charlottesville’s mayor.
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In an interview with The Daily Progress, the Charlottesville native and mother of three said she was honored to receive an award with Lugo’s namesake, whom she personally knew.
“Of the potential things that I could be honored for, being honored by Black people and being aligned with Miss Lugo and the work that she did is an honor, and I appreciate that the elders of the community thought of me,” Walker said.
Reflecting on Lugo’s accomplishments and legacy, Walker said she admired how Lugo was unapologetically Black and proud of where she came from. Walker said she was struck by Lugo’s pride in Burley Middle School and its legacy within Charlottesville’s Black community. Lugo and her family were among the Black students who chose not to attend Lane High School, instead opting to remain at Burley.
“It was amazing to hear her claim her space in that time as a woman growing up in the heart of the Civil Rights movement,” Walker said. “She gave the community her strength and was unapologetic about her feelings and made sure her community was being heard.”
Born in 1941 on Anderson Street, Lugo attended the Jefferson School and became a dynamic presence in the halls of what was then Burley High School as both a student and a teacher. Lugo was valedictorian of the Class of 1959 and returned to teach at Burley after graduating from what is now Hampton University. Lugo died in 2011, leaving behind a lifetime of advocacy work.
Walker was the first Black woman to serve as Charlottesville’s mayor. Looking back at her time in public office, Walker said she was proud that she kept equity in the minds of the Charlottesville community, even when it was difficult.
“I was unapologetically willing to force the community to deal with itself and the level of racism that is still very much alive here today,” she said. “I was able to keep that conversation going every day and tie it into all of those normal things that people think of as city business by bringing an equity lens into those conversations.”
Walker said this perspective proved impactful in various situations, including when reconsidering the lower rates the University of Virginia had been paying for water services. While it may sound like a minor issue to some, Walker said the ability to pay utilities is a struggle for a significant portion of the Charlottesville community.
The money lost due to the lower rates could have been used to assist those people, she said.
“On the surface it seems like a regular local government conversation, but I made sure we had the conversation about who was impacted by citizens footing the bill of this major institution,” Walker said. “I always made sure, no matter how insignificant it seemed to a lot of people, that I attempted to expand the viewpoint and the lens that people were looking through so they could see the injustice in those decisions and hopefully make better decisions moving forward.”
Walker opted not to seek re-election last year, choosing to return to private life after four years as mayor. Though she said she expects to return to community advocacy at some point, right now she is focusing on self-care.
Referencing a quote from noted feminist poet and civil rights advocate Audre Lorde, Walker said is an act of both self-preservation and political warfare.
“When it came to this position, I put everything into it and that included spending over 14,161 days working,” Walker said, recounting both her time running for and serving in public office. “I’m looking forward to resting right now. I want to make really good decisions moving forward and you can’t make good decisions when you’re exhausted.”
The Continuing His Dreams & Work also features a speech from Minister Jaquan Chisholm and performances from musicians and vocalists Michael Terrell Jr., Alexis Nowell, Mark Williams and others.
The event is sponsored in part by Darnell Taylor Cleaning Service, Sentara Starr Hill Health Center, Jones Heating & Air, Martin Hardware, Reid’s Supermarket, Cavalier Barbershop, Carters’ Taxi, Inc. and Our Legacy, Inc.
The Continuing His Works & Dreams Telecast Comcast will air on Channel-14 at 7 p.m. Monday and will be available online at Alex-Zan.com.