By MARY JEAN HALL
Special to the Press
After a spontaneous change of plans in high school, a woman started down a path where she overcame challenges and worked to unite residents on “both sides of the fence” as Martin’s first black alderwoman.
About 10 years ago, Natalie Boyd became the first black minority member on the Martin Board of Mayor and Aldermen.
“I saw a need for African Americans in Martin to have a voice,” Boyd said.
Boyd initially addressed that need by attending city board meetings and eventually obtaining the position of Ward 3 alderwoman.
She thoroughly enjoyed serving as alderwoman and focused on serving through her motto.
“My passion is to serve people and I always try to live by the motto that ‘I am my brother’s and my sister’s keeper,’” Boyd said. “That’s one thing that I keep before me every day.”
Boyd recalls one of her greatest achievements during her time as an alderwoman. It was a bill addressing an age old problem in this new era. The bill, which was passed in 2004, enabled the city to tear down a fence that divided Parham Cemetery down the middle with Euro-Americans buried on one side and African Americans buried on the other.
Parham Cemetery is located east on Hwy. 22 towards Dresden.
“For years I always wondered why there was a fence, and then I began to ask questions to different older people who were a part of my church,” she said.
Boyd would always inquire “why is there a fence down the middle of a cemetery?” not really knowing the purpose of it.
“I was told it just like this, ‘The blacks are on one side and the whites are on another.’”
The reason she was told? To separate.
“How do you separate people in death, because we all go back to dirt, so how do you separate us?” Boyd asked other locals. “If we are a city that says that we are building to unify, then why are we still living in the past?”
After hearing from the community, the board decided that the fence would come down. The fence is down and now the city grooms both sides. “At first the city only groomed the Euro-American side. There was no unity,” Boyd said.
“Because of all of that and us as a board working together, it no longer exists. The fence is gone.
“It was definitely a step in the right direction for the city of Martin.”
Boyd’s story of how she arrived in Martin is interesting, to say the least. Boyd came to Martin as a student at UTM. Originally from Whitehaven, in Memphis, she was set to go elsewhere until Judy Rayburn came to her school and gave a presentation to get students interested in coming to UTM.
Rayburn showed a picture of the dome pool that was between the McCord and Ellington dorms.
“I am not a swimmer but when I saw that I thought ‘How neat,’” Boyd said. “I changed my mind and here I am.”
Before then, she had never heard of UTM but she decided to give it a try. She later graduated from UTM with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in social work.
The first person she met on the campus was Roy, who was pursuing a degree in education. They’ve been together since she was a freshman and will have been married 25 years this May.
Upon graduation, Boyd landed a job with the nursing home where she completed her internship at UTM. She later worked at a nursing home, hospital, with mentally ill patients and now with students. After over 21 years of experience in social work, Boyd is currently the PSEPP coordinator at UTM.
“I loved it so we decided to make Martin our home. It’s a great place to raise a family.”
The Boyds have two children. Cameron is a senior pre-med student at UTM and Mariah is a freshman at the University of Memphis.
As a parent Boyd didn’t have any issues raising her children in Martin.
Boyd is glad she stayed in Martin. She sees it as a great place to raise children. With people moving in and out of Martin, she sees a lot of things coming into the city.
“Now is the time for people to come together, because no matter what we say outside of our houses, we all experience the same problems, we all have the same issues and I think we all have the same dreams,” she said. “In order to make our lives, our homes, our churches, our schools, our places of employment better, happier, we’ve got to work together. What better place to begin than by loving each other.
“We don’t realize that as a parent, we are the first influence on our children whether it is positive or negative. Most of our children take on a parent’s beliefs.”
She always tells her children “no matter where you are, no matter what the situation may look like, always try to be a beacon of light because even in your darkest moment light can overpower darkness. Just keep shining. Whether it’s to speak kind words, whether it’s to help a stranger, whether it’s to feed the hungry – because there is so much darkness in the world, we’ve got to try to drive it out.”
Boyd was strongly influenced by her parents, Napoleon Nelson and Ruby Jean Dickerson, as a child.
“The greatest gift you gave me was your love,” Boyd told her father recently.
“I always thought I was the richest girl in the world, not because of things, but because I had parents who instilled in me the richest of all values,” she said. “The first was to love God, love myself and to love people. Because of that I’ve always had this strong desire to serve people.”
Boyd recalls watching her parents giving, caring for, providing for and serving as the example. She feels blessed for having a family as well as a husband with those values.
“You will find that the greatest thank you your child can give you is when you see what you’ve taught them in action” is one piece of advice Boyd’s father used to tell her.
Boyd noted two UTM professors, Betty Raspberry and Dr. Barbara Matí, who helped shape her to become the best social worker she could be. According to Boyd, for each chapter they went over in class, they shared a personal experience that the students could relate to.
“They taught with passion,” Boyd said.
She also noted having many other advisors and supporters during her time in Martin. Oak Grove Baptist Pastor Alvin Gerome Summers has also been a strong supporter of Boyd.
Boyd is involved with Black History Month events on campus as well as in the community, but she thinks there needs to be more involvement in making sure we know history in general.
“I don’t understand why everything has to be divided,” Boyd said. “We take one month out of the year, February, to be Black History Month. Black history is black history, no matter if it’s January, March, or April. It’s history. So, once again we’re separating things or celebrations that we should always be made aware of.”
Boyd recalled when her children were younger and they asked about why Black History Month was only celebrated in February. They also inquired about why it was only taught in schools at that time as well.
“To them, it made them think [black history] was not important when all parts of history are important,” she said. “If it were not for history, none of us would be where we are. We’ve got to honor those who have paved the way, not just for African Americans, but for all people.”
Despite all of the progress, she still sees some issues that need to be taken care of.
“As a country we have a long way to go,” Boyd said. “We say we’ve overcome but my question is ‘have we overcome?’ I think we’ve sugar coated so much. We’ve sugar coated racism so well that now it’s bursting out of the seams and coming out ugly. We all have prejudices but there is a way that we can voice it that’s not going to say I’m the big guy and you’re the little one, and because of your beliefs I have to ‘x’ you out. You’ve got to respect who you are and what your beliefs are. When you peel back the color of the outer skin, we are all still God’s creatures.”
One example Boyd gave was the choice of musicians/talent during the Soybean Festival.
“It’s not balanced,” Boyd said. “On the agenda of a five-day event, you may only have one black musician.”
The issues can only be fixed from everyone working together – not just one side.
“It’s time to put the race card in the trash,” she said. “It’s going to take us reaching toward each other, to not be afraid to say what we expect from our city, and African Americans not feeling as though your voice doesn’t matter when you go to city hall.”
She commended Martin Mayor Randy Brundige for being “open-minded” on various issues.
Boyd cited a quote by her pastor that serves as encouragement.
“You’ve got to dare to be better, to be greater, to be smarter, to love more, to respect more. Even if we’re looked at as the one who stirs up stink, we’re not stirring up stink – we’re trying to stir up love, we’re trying to stir up us getting along with each other, we’re trying to stir up unity and we’re trying to stir up the opportunity for all of our children to have a chance at a good life.”
“I want my children to have the same opportunities as anyone else’s child,” Boyd continued. “I don’t want anything handed to them. I want them to want to earn, but I also want them to get those special treats.”
She feels as though both of her children have been blessed to have been a part of the extracurricular activities in Martin. With most of those activities, there is a fee, and according to Boyd, most black families can’t afford to pay it.
“It knocks them out of an opportunity to have a chance to excel at something that very well could be the blessing in their life,” she said.
Boyd gives kudos to the Teen Center for reaching out to young black youth in the city, but she says that they can’t do it alone.
“It takes more help, not just from community leaders, but from parents. Moms and dads have got to be more responsible in the raising of their children, and because this is a college town, I feel like we can extend that hand a little bit farther in working with the community and with the churches.”
Boyd now reaches out to the campus and community through her position with PSEPP, or Personal Safety Empowerment Partnership Project.
PSEPP deals with education and training to incoming freshmen and focuses on sexual violence.
“We’ve seen that sexual violence is a silent crime that is now coming to the forefront on most of our college campuses, but here at UTM we are striving to not just educate our students but the faculty, staff and community as well,” Boyd said. “The top goal, next to academics, is safety for the students.”
Right now PSEPP is a grant program, but Boyd feels that UTM will continue the services.
“I feel positive that UTM, being a campus that cares, will incorporate [PSEPP] into the system because of their deep concern for the safety of all of our students, both male and female,” she said.
“Being a part of PSEPP is just another opportunity for me to serve, and I’m quite sure under the leadership of my director, Shannon Deal, we’re going to do just that. We’re going to serve a population of young men and young women here on this campus who may need the service of PSEPP.”
According to Boyd, after serving as an alderwoman for four years, she decided to retire from city government after showing up late to her son’s basketball game due to a city board meeting.
She does have an interest to return in the future, especially to encourage women.
“I wish more women would run for office here,” Boyd said. “I’ve been blessed in so many ways.
“Martin has been good, but I dare us to be better, to love harder and to open up doors to all who want to walk through. Not everyone is willing to grab that opportunity, but we must make that opportunity available.”
Published in The WCP 2.7.13