HAWKINS, Texas (KLTV) - An award-winning actress and educator is sharing her message of hope, community and the need for each generation to reach out and teach the one behind it.
Actress Tommie “Tonea” Stewart was the keynote speaker Tuesday at the Black History Month Convocation at Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins. She spoke with KLTV’s Arthur Clayborn about what she feels it is important to share with the students and others in attendance.
“It is so important for us to pass on the oral history. That’s part of our culture. In Africa, the way of getting the word and the understanding of the laws and the principles and the situations that could arrive, it was through oral history,” Stewart said. “We understand things better when we talk about them. People say ‘if you don’t want us to understand, put it in writing.’ You can put it in writing. We’ll understand it, too. But a part of our culture is the oral history.”
A native of Greenwood, Mississippi, Stewart has lived in Montgomery, Alabama since 1990. She is a professional actress, play director, and national museum exhibit director.
“Growing up in the Delta of Mississippi, there was a time of hopelessness. Then there was a time of feeling that we were on our way after the Civil Rights Movement. Now, it’s complex because we have so many of our young people who seem to feel as if they don’t count anymore," Stewart said. "They fell like there’s always a way to get rich quick and to take from others. That’s not what we’re about. It’s so important for us to remind them of the love, dedication and the sacrifices that went forth for us to be here today, and we want them to take advantage of that.”
Stewart has earned theater degrees from Jackson State University and the University of California at Santa Barbara. She also holds a Ph.D. in Theatre Arts at Florida State University. Stewart was the first black woman to receive a doctorate from the FSU School of Theatre and the first McKnight Doctoral Fellow in Theatre Arts.
Stewart is also an educator. She’s a retired tenured Professor and Dean of the College of Visual & Performing Arts at Alabama State University. So it’s no surprise that she stressed the importance of education, the need for community and the need for the older generation to reach out and “compliment and validate” today’s youth.
“The HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) in this nation enrollments are going down, and that should not be,” Stewart said. “There was a time, I know in the case of my husband for an example, if it were not for the people in the community making the church the school, they wouldn’t have had a school. But just about everybody from his class is still living. They are either doctorates or lawyers or practicing in some way in a business to survive because they were taught by the community.”
Stewart believes there are lots of opportunities for shaping young people and growing a community, but she said it takes people reaching out to help and share the wisdom they’ve picked up along the way.
“Sometimes it seems like today, those of us feel like we’ve made it, we turn our heads and go the other way and want to go on the east side of town or go on the north side of town and leave the south side and the west side to fall apart,” she said. “We really should stop that. That is an insult to our ancestors.”"
Stewart’s acting career started in 1969. Since then, she’s directed more than 40 plays as well as directed major museum exhibitions such as the Rosa Parks Museum, African American Museum of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and The International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, N.C.
She’s performed in Canada, Mexico, South Korea, Scotland, Turkey, and throughout the United States, including Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.
Her screen and television credits include, “A Time To Kill”, “Mississippi Burning,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers III,” “Walker, Texas Ranger,” “Memphis Beat," “Matlock," “In The Heat of the Night,” “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," “ER” and “Touched by an Angel.”
“I think “In the Heat of the Night" did a massive job, an excellent job of giving us some real reality situations and how those situations could be resolved," Stewart said.
Stewart earned an NAACP Image Award nomination for her role in the film adaptation of John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill” and a New York World Festival Gold Medal Award for the narration of Public Radio International’s series “Remembering Slavery.”
And Stewart believes remembering and passing along historical accounts need to happen more often.
“Sometimes it feels like we’re ashamed to go back and tell the stories, and we really need to do that. It’s not necessarily the fault of our young people. They don’t even know what to look for because we’re not showing them, we’re not telling them,” Stewart said. “We’re only showing them material things — cars, jewelry — things that symbolize power. Power is not what it takes to survive. What is takes to survive is education.”