When Virginia Alston was growing up, information about black history wasn’t readily available in schools. Almost 40 years after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Alston says society has progressed, but there’s always room for improvement.

When Virginia Alston was growing up, information about black history wasn’t readily available in schools.

“If you wanted to know about your history, you had to research it yourself,” she said.

Now, Alston, 66, is trying to educate others.

On Feb. 24, her play, “Tribute to Past-n-Present,” will be presented at St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Utica, N.Y. The play focuses on icons including Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Luther Vandross and Marvin Gaye.

Almost 40 years after King was assassinated, Alston said society has progressed, but there’s always room for improvement.

“I don’t understand why it was so hard to get there. There have been some changes, but we have a long way to go yet,” she said. “It’s sad, because life is too short for hatred.”

As Black History Month begins, several residents and leaders spoke about what’s changed since the civil rights era of the ’50s and ’60s, and what’s left to be done.

Incremental changes

Cheryl Beckett Minor’s role as the first black principal in the Utica City School District is evidence of the strides society has made since King’s death, she said.

“Since I have been in this position, it has been very welcoming — thank goodness,” the principal of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School said. “It really warms my heart when children say ‘Oh, I want to be a principal just like you.’”

Minor said changes in society have been incremental.

“But society is still experiencing some racial profiling. At the same time, we have individuals who have experienced positive relationships” with each other, she said. “It’s not what it was when Dr. King marched on Montgomery.”

Race obsession

Michael Woods, a black musician and professor in the music department at Hamilton College in Upstate New York, said laws have changed and more opportunities exist for black residents, but racism still exists.

He cited race questions on job applications and tests as an example of society’s obsession with race.

“The United States is the only country in the world with the ‘one drop rule.’ If you have one drop of black blood, you’re black,” Woods said. “A professional person can be 1/16 percent black, but they’re still black for legal purposes.”

Woods said racism often is subtle and can be revealed through various perceptions of the concept of race and skin color.

‘Serious gains’

How far society has come is evident in the 2008 presidential election, where a woman and a black man are running, said Utica Common Councilman Bill Philips.

“That fact in itself, to me, is astonishing,” said Philips, who is black. “It’s not a symbolic thing, they’re really serious candidates. So, to me, I feel we’ve made serious gains.”

But no matter how great the gains, some people always will resist change, he said.

“I think wherever we go in society, there’s going to be people who resist equalization. I think in the world we live in today, we misunderstand each other,” he said. “I think we live in two different worlds in terms of culture — rich and poor. We have some stereotypes to overcome.”

Half full/half empty

In 1991, Utica College sociology professor Jan J. DeAmicis was instrumental in bringing the Smithsonian exhibit “Field to Factory” to the Oneida County Historical Society.

DeAmicis and the late Elaine Cantor also spearheaded a separate exhibit that outlined the migration of black migrant workers to the area called “On the Season.”

“There’s been tremendous progress since the 1950s. Since then, we’ve had a black woman who is secretary of state, Oprah Winfrey, and we have a black man running for president,” said DeAmicis, who is white.

But significant problems still exist, he said, citing poverty in the black community, and income and education gaps between whites and blacks.

“In a lot of ways, the glass is half full and half empty.”

Observer-Dispatch

What they said

Area residents were asked: How far has society come from the civil rights era?

Eric Lucas of Utica:

“We've gained about 40 years from the civil rights movement, and we're supposed to evolve from that, and we haven't. We're still in a time where people of different skin colors, different races, different creeds, different religions different sexes and different sexual orientations are still taboo … and it's becoming very irritating to have a regular conversation with the next guy.”

Hope Wagner of Utica:

“I think we've come a long ways. I think there's more equality amongst us. Compared to when I was brought up, there were fine lines that couldn't be crossed.”

Salina Rivera of Utica:

“All cultures are here, being educated here, and living here. I think we're doing well progressing in society. I'm actually a Polish girl, and I'm married to a Hispanic man. My father's parents are from Poland. So, growing up in a broken-English household, back then, things were different. But, after about a year or so, my family completely accepted him. My father considers him one of his own sons. … Once they see it was more about the upbringing than it was about the history, everything changed.”

Anthony Scriven of Utica:

“We've made some strides, but there are still some changes that need to be made. It's more subtle.”