When he had to choose a great African American for an essay contest, Uriah Fortson, 11, picked a hero unknown to most: His grandfather.
Deputy Sheriff Roy J. Fortson Jr., who was born and raised in Philadelphia, died on duty and never met his grandchildren.
On last Saturday in February, Uriah read his essay at the Charles M. Finley Recreation Center to a crowd of more than 70 as the first-place winner in the elementary category. The contest’s theme was “Achieving Greatness Through Choices” and was sponsored by the Charles M. Finley Recreation Center Advisory Council.
About 35 students from area elementary, middle and high schools participated, and eight were awarded certificates and cash prizes, said Walter Marlin, president of the advisory council.
Elementary students explained why the African American they chose to profile was great. Those in middle school showed how the person became great, and high school students examined the choices the person made in achieving greatness.
The council looked for clarity, train of thought and creativity, Marlin said.
This year brought the most submissions since the contest began 12 years ago. But the council is still struggling to attract one group in particular.
“For some reason, high school kids don’t want cash,” Marlin said.
Looking toward next year, the council is thinking of either increasing the cash prize or changing it to something electronic.
Marlin believes a big part of this year’s success in lower grades has been the involvement of teachers.
Cheryl Greene, a teacher at Amy Northwest Middle School, had all her students write essays. She was impressed with Courtney Collins’ essay on Carl Brashear and submitted it to the contest. Greene said that though Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King are important figures, Brashear, the first black U.S. Navy Master Diver, is someone who needs to be spotlighted as well.
Before it was her turn to read, Courtney sat quietly in the audience between her mother, Carolyn, and Cheryl Greene. When she reached the lectern, she talked about her inspiration to write.
“I want to make a difference in the world,” she said. “No matter what goes on around you, the dream starts with you.”
Seventh grader Jelani Hasan wrote about the Nicholas Brothers, a dancing duo he has admired since he first watched the 1943 film “Stormy Weather.” He knew he would get a good grade on the assignment he spent all night working on, but he had no idea he would win the contest.
His mother, Vilma Bailey-Hasan, was just as surprised when she received a call from the advisory council. After finding out the event was open to the public, she invited her entire family through a text message.
She was excited for her son, whom she described as a ham, to read his essay.
And Jelani didn’t disappoint. Dressed in a dapper black and white checkered suit he causing stirs of laughter in the crowd as he flashed a knowing smile each time he came to an interesting part.