By Elizabeth Coss and Christopher Gillett
The Simeon E. Booker Award was presented to two recipients Oct. 6 in the Chestnut Room of Kilcawley Center: Anthony Ray Hinton, the national recipient, and Dr. Virginia “Dee” Banks, the local recipient.
The award was created in memory of Simeon E. Booker, a student who attended Youngstown State University for one year before transferring to Virginia Union University. He transferred because, while African Americans could attend YSU at the time, the university barred black students from participating in university life outside being a student.
After transferring and graduating in 1942, Booker worked for The Washington Post. He reported on the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old African American boy Emmet Till who was murdered after being falsely accused of harassing a white woman. Decades later in 2013, YSU gave Booker an honorary diploma and created the award to right the wrong.
Hinton, from Alabama, was chosen as the national recipient for being falsely convicted for capital murder. Starting in 1985, he spent 30 years on death row in an Alabama prison. His case was noticed by lawyer and activist, Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson’s organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, worked with Hinton to challenge his conviction. The EJI brought experts who disproved the case’s ballistics. Alabama then released Hinton in 2015.
According to Hinton, he did not receive a fair trial due to the racism of a system that treats individuals better if they’re rich and guilty, opposed to those poor and innocent. He said it takes courage to stand up to the system.
“It’s an honor to even be mentioned to receive an award of this magnitude. Courage — the way I look at courage — is something that all of us should have, and once you have the courage to stand up when there’s injustice, courage as I say, is contagious,” Hinton said.
Hinton said the future of America is in the hands of the younger generation to stand up against injustice.
“Young people, I truly believe, are the key to change in the system. I want young people to stand up,” Hinton said. “What I’m about is education, letting you promote the truth. And I think every college that I’ve been fortunate enough to go to I feel so blessed that years later I get letters from students saying they’ll go into law.”
Banks, a local infectious disease physician who helped relay information on the coronavirus during the COVID-19 pandemic, said she appreciated being recognized for her work and courage.
“I wanted to be a trusted messenger because once we started to kind of get our arms wrapped around this virus and started to see we had vaccines that were available, as an infectious disease doctor, I knew that we had wiped out so many diseases in this world through vaccines,” Banks said.
Like Booker, Banks also shares a deep connection to YSU and said she’s proud of what the university represents.
“Youngstown is my home, I’ve been here for 30 years and I’m proud of who we are,” Banks said. “I graduated with my executive MBA in 1996 … It was the Williamson School of Business at that time … so, we didn’t have a major, it was a lock-step program, so for 18 long months we met everyday Saturday at the Williamson School of Business and we studied accounting and all the other things regular students do in MBA school.”
Alongside the award, a scholarship in Booker’s name was also presented to two students. Britney Bailey, a senior general studies major and Miya Pierce, a graduate student studying social work with a double minor in communications and sociology, were both awarded with the Simeon E. Booker scholarship.
Pierce said receiving the scholarship was an honor, especially because of the impact Booker left on society.
“Simeon Booker is such an icon. During the Civil Rights Movement, he was an outstanding journalist. I can only imagine what it was like to be working during those times,” Pierce said. “The most touching [story] for me, like many of you, was about little Emmitt Till, a 14-year-old boy who was murdered in the most horrific way. To be able to write about that alone is very motivating because he not only brought about awareness but he brought movement.”
This award event was just one part of Ohio Nonviolence Week which was sponsored by Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past. If interested in becoming involved with the organization contact Penny Wells at [email protected].