The New York African Chorus Ensemble, Video by Bill Lescohier:
Decades ago, if you had told Keith Bodden that someday the Morristown Neighborhood House would honor him at a Black History Month celebration, he probably would have said you were crazy.
“I started off in America as a white man,” the NAACP official told an amused audience at Morristown High School last week.
Keith, 75, was born in Jamaica in a mixed-race family. His father served on a British warship during World War II and was allowed to emigrate to the U.S. after the war.
“My father was a brave man,” Keith recounted. “But he decided he was not brave enough to be a black man in America. So I started off in America as a white man.”
Keith attended a white school in Tampa, Fl., “and quite frankly, I had a good time at this white school.”
Over time, however, he bristled at indignities suffered by his darker-skinned relations. He decided their cause was his cause.
“I don’t think the issue was color. The issue was purpose,” said the Morris Plains resident.
Photos by Bill Lescohier. Please click icon below for captions.
Keith was a nuclear energy specialist in the Army and later worked for the Ford Administration, where he helped bring about African American History Month. A graduate of the Pennsylvania Military College (now Widener University), he went on to work for Westinghouse, Allied-Chemical and the Internal Revenue Service.
But his passion has been serving the NAACP in numerous capacities, including as president of the Morris County branch. He has devoted much energy to honoring accomplished African Americans, including scientists from the Manhattan Project, New Jersey members of the Tuskegee Airmen, and soon, soldiers from Jersey who took part in D-Day.
Last week’s celebration included performances by the New York African Chorus Ensemble and Frelinghuysen Middle School student Bello “BJ” Lamadieu, who recited a Maya Angelou poem in stirring fashion during an evening billed as a tribute to the late Nelson Mandela.
Keith said he touched the revered South African leader in 1990, in Brooklyn. At one time, Keith reminded listeners from the Nabe and its parent organization, Cornerstone Family Programs, Nelson Mandela was regarded as an enemy by the U.S. government.
“Anyone who opposed white supremacy became an enemy,” Keith said.
Things are getting better.
“I’m an eyewitness to the changes that have taken place in this glorious country called America,” he said. “Anyone today should be proud of where we are. We have the first African American president. I never thought I’d see it, but it’s here. In 2016, we might have our first woman president.”
The New York African Chorus Ensemble, video by Bill Lescohier: