Heroes of Black History with Joy Young

Author Samantha Howie
February 24, 2021

Samantha Howie – Associate Director, Frazer Jones
Joy Young – VP, People Operations, AiCure

Joy, it’s so kind of you to take the time to catch up with us and share your Hero of Black History, your own father, Dr. Gene C. Young. His biography, which can be read in full here, is nothing short of incredible. 

From starting his Civil Rights activism in Mississippi at the age of only 12, working alongside the likes of future Congressman John Lewis and Medgar Evers (shortly before the latter was assassinated), to having his testimony on police brutality entered into the congressional record with Fannie Lou Hamer herself, attending the March on Washington and seeing Dr. King, then joining and being arrested in The Poor People’s Campaign in D.C. several years later, Dr. Gene C. Young played a part in some of most storied moments in the movement. 

Is there a favorite tale from his life of activism or long career as an educator that stands out to you more than others? And why? 

There are a few, but the one that stands out occurred during his time as a college student – his retelling of the night in 1970 that Phillip Gibbs and James Earl Green were murdered on the campus of Jackson State University. My father and the other students were gathered on the yard immediately following the shootings (which also injured another 12 students in the hail of gunfire from the police). My dad recited the “I Have A Dream” speech to help calm everyone. He could do an almost perfect imitation of Dr. Martin Luther King, and I loved when he would recite it, so I can only imagine what the impact was on the students. 

Incredible. In the abject pain and confusion of that tragedy, to be able to deliver such a meditation, seems to be the mark of a great leader, and teacher. 

Leadership was a quality your father began developing even earlier in his life. Moving backwards in time a bit, the summer of 1964 was dubbed “Freedom Summer,” as efforts were being made to register Black Americans in Mississippi and all across the South to vote. The violent events of the day, the Mississippi Burning murders for example, were unfolding in real time, undoubtedly lending additional urgency behind activist efforts. Still, even at such a young age, not 13 or 14 years old, your father was protesting, giving addresses to large crowds, and doing so amid the looming threat of mortal danger. 

Where do you think he found the courage? Who are some of the people he drew his inspiration from? 

I think it was largely derived from my grandmother, Beatrice Young. She was a legend in her own right. As for his inspiration, my father was an avid reader, so he would have been influenced by everyone from from Voltaire to Frederick Douglass. If I had to pick one person that my dad would consider an inspiration, it would be Stevie Wonder. My dad knew every single lyric of every song that Stevie ever made. He would pepper the lyrics throughout the speeches he gave at various events, and not only that, Stevie’s Song “ Joy Inside My Tears” is part of the reason that I am named Joy. 

What are some of the qualities of his that you remember most fondly?

He was funny and loved to play pranks. He was known for bursting out in song in random public places, to the embarrassment of my brother and I. One of my favorite things was when he would take us to class on the nights that he was teaching at Jackson State. It always amazed me that he was born at Jackson State, attended undergrad there, and years later, returned there to teach.

You shared with us that before it was mainstream to do so, your father actively underscored the reality that Black History is American History, and did so on a daily basis within your family.  How did he go about instilling this knowledge and what impact has it had on you? 

All of our family vacations focused on Black History. We did go to Disney World, but we also went to places like Selma, Birmingham, and attended the 25th anniversary of the March on Washington. My brother and I attended an all Black private school, Adhiambo, in Mississippi, where we sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” every morning and learned Black History that wasn’t addressed in the public school system. We celebrated Kwanzaa and he loved to quiz my brother and I on random Black History facts. 

I think that the foundation that he and my mother provided for us helped build my confidence. I learned very early on that my ancestors weren’t just enslaved people, but they were royalty, philosophers, and made incredible contributions to the world. This knowledge that they instilled about my family motivates me to this day. My dad always said: “I didn’t protest and get thrown in jail, so you could be mediocre.” That still resonates with me, and I strive to exceed his expectations. I think he would be proud of me.

I know he would. 

Joy, Thank you again for sharing all this with us – your father’s incredible life and the impact he had on this country, you, and your family. It is was an honor to be able to learn more about Dr. Gene C. Young, and help share his story.