By Kimani Hamilton
Data News Weekly Contributor
To commemorate Black History Month, St. Mary’s Academy paid tribute to twelve notable African American women in New Orleans. The Women of Distinction Awards took place on Feb. 28 at the school on 6905 Chef Menteur Blvd. As an all-girl Catholic school, administrators said they wanted to specifically recognize black women, who are often overlooked in events recognizing contributions to the African American community.
The 2019 honorees included Mayor Latoya Cantrell who told the young students that both faith and hard work would allow them to fulfill their calling in life.
“I encourage you to pray, constantly for discernment, so that the Lord is truly ordering your steps and you have the ability and the foresight to follow them,” Cantrell told the students in the school’s gymnasium.
Cantrell shared about her career achievements that she believes she is where she is supposed to be, always at the right time, and when she is supposed to be there. Her success would not be possible without faith, commitment, and dedication to people and the love of God, she added.
“Understand what makes that fire burn within you,” Cantrell said.
In addressing young girls, Cantrell acknowledged that while she is the first woman to be elected mayor of New Orleans, she will not be the last. She encouraged the students to stand tall, to be confident and to embrace their truth.
In addition to Cantrell, the event recognized Leah Chase, the owner of Dooky Chase restaurant; Magistrate Judge Dana Douglas; Therese Badon, the vice-president for Development for the United Negro College Fund; certified public accountant and author Kemberley Washington; Louisiana Weekly publisher Renette Dejoie Hall; biochemist Dr. Trivia Frazier; OperaCréole founders Givonna Joseph and Aria Mason; New Orleans Fashion Week founder Tracee Dundas; Tekrema Center for Art and Culture founder and director Greer Mendy; and high school fashion designer Amaya Johné Cannon.
The honorees showed up to address the young girls directly and to share life lessons. Judge Dana Douglas, who attended St. Mary’s Academy, shared that no African American had ever been the president of the New Orleans Bar Association and a partner at Liskow and Lewis, where she spent 18 years practicing law. She also let students know that in the past, no African American woman had ever been judge in the eastern district of Louisiana.
“Now, fast forward to 2019, there are currently three women who sit in that court house, two of which have served as chief judges of that court,” Douglas said.
Douglas said that along with a friend of hers, they became the first two African American women to become partners at Liskow and Lewis. In the history of the New Orleans Bar Association, Douglas served as the third African American president of that association.
“Resist the temptation of people to tell you what you can and what you can’t do,” Douglas said.
The honorees encouraged the students to have faith in their abilities, particularly where they do not often see women in charge. Tracee Dundas, the founder of New Orleans Fashion Week described how as a child, whenever she was given a task, she would tell her father “I can’t.” Her father told her “I can’t is not in the vocabulary. You cannot say that.” From that moment on everything became “I can.”
“Don’t ever stop learning. Don’t ever stop growing,” Dundas said. “Whatever you want to achieve, yes you can. Just go for it,” she added.
Leading the oldest, still operating Black-owned newspaper in Louisiana required both conviction and perseverance for publisher Renette Dejoie Hall.
“Please do not end your education when you graduate from college. Please continue to learn and be inquisitive,” Dejoie Hall said.
In serving in positions of power, Hall told students to always remember where they came from.
“Learn your history because if you don’t know what happened in the past, you’ve got a hard time going forward,” Hall said.