EDITOR’S NOTE: To recognize Black History Month, the MDJ asked 20 community leaders how they will celebrate and what BHM means to them. Today we feature Marietta Councilwoman Michelle Cooper Kelly, who has represented Ward 6 since 2014.
For Michelle Cooper Kelly, Black History Month is a time to celebrate and reflect upon Black American contributions to history. In doing so, Cooper Kelly takes pride in being an alumna of North Carolina A&T State University, a historically black university in Greensboro, North Carolina. The school has a rich civil rights history, including the sit-ins of the Greensboro Four.
The sit-ins, which lasted for several months during 1960, were started by four freshmen at the whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro’s Woolworth store.
The Greensboro Four quickly attracted more students to their protest, which eventually resulted in Greensboro businesses desegregating their lunch counters and Woolworth desegregating its stores across the country. The work of the Greensboro Four helped spark the larger sit-in movement that played out across the South.
Cooper Kelly’s husband, Bill, also graduated from North Carolina A&T, and her son is a student there now. She admires the bravery of civil rights activists who paved the way for future generations.
“When people have the power, the tenacity, when they’ve got the will to say, ‘I want to make a difference,’ and they were very diligent and consistent about doing that, and it made a monumental change in our society,” she said.
Despite the ongoing pandemic, Cooper Kelly said there are plenty of ways to celebrate Black History Month locally. She praised the Marietta Visitors Bureau for promoting its Black Heritage Walking Tour, which features the sites of 19th century Black business, schools and churches, a house used in the Underground Railroad and other historic places.
“I don’t think we have to go outside of our city, or even our county, to really celebrate or recognize African Americans’ contributions,” she said.
Starting in 2015, Kelly spearheaded efforts to build Elizabeth Porter Park on a site once occupied by a hospital that treated Black residents during segregation. It later was repurposed as a recreation center known as the Canteen. The park’s namesake, Porter, was the director of the recreation center.
Kelly served as chair of the Elizabeth Porter Historic Monument, Art, and Murals Committee, working with community elders, historians, and others over several years to bring the project to fruition.
“We brought together a collection of great minds of people who had historical information about Marietta during segregation,” Kelly said. “And it was important that as we moved forward with building a new facility that everybody in Marietta could enjoy, that we preserve the history.”