Freda Mae Black and Melvin Benning. Photo by Mason Callejas

February is proclaimed Black History month annually in the city of Maricopa. It is a month of reflection and celebration, as well as an opportunity to come together as a community.

This year, the Men’s Cultural Awareness Symposium at City Hall discussed the politics of skin tone in the African American community Saturday. During this year’s proclamation Tuesday, council chambers were filled with residents who celebrated with music, singing and refreshments.

In January, Maricopa celebrated the life of Martin Luther King Jr. at Copper Sky. At that event was Melvin Benning, one organizer of the city’s very first MLK event years ago.

Benning, the first African American president of the local Rotary Club, and Freda Mae Black were on the ground floor of African American celebrations in Maricopa.

Black is an Arizona native, and Benning hails from Detroit, Michigan. Both moved to Maricopa in 2006 and met as neighbors in Senita.

The friends quickly bonded and organized the city’s first Martin Luther King Jr. and Juneteenth celebrations at Rotary Park in 2008. Benning and Black said their efforts to establish positive traditions in their new community did not come without its obstacles.

“It was a struggle because I didn’t get the backing that I thought I would from the town of Maricopa,” Black said.

Organizers say they were frustrated with the city’s lack of involvement in the inaugural events celebrating African American history and culture.

The turnout was good despite the struggles. Future Mayor Christian Price, Councilmember Marvin Brown, future Councilmember Henry Wade and Pinal County NAACP President Constance Jackson were among the attendees.

The lack of support elsewhere discouraged Black from planning future events in the city.

“I never try to use color as a factor in anything, but that’s how they make you feel,” she said.

Black decided to refocus her events in Phoenix with her nonprofit organization that provides resources for the homeless and those living with HIV. Benning, a musician, continued booking local concerts around the county with his band.

Seven years passed, and the city held its second MLK Day, this time hosted by new organizers.

Benning still has family ties to the city and says race relations in Maricopa are improving, citing Mayor Price’s and Maricopa Police Department Chief Steve Stahl’s work in the community and the local active NAACP.

Black said events like these should be embraced by the whole community because it is an opportunity to learn from each other.

“We fear change because we don’t want to understand it,” Black said. “You need to stop fearing change and embrace it because everybody comes with so many good ideas.”

A new event in Maricopa debuts this week at the Maricopa Public Library. The African American History Live Musical Revue will take place Feb. 10 at 4 p.m.

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