People from across the Rio Grande Valley came together for the unveiling and dedication ceremony of a mural honoring the Historic Bethel Garden on Saturday to celebrate Black History Month.
In partnership with the city of McAllen, Village in the Valley (ViVa), a nonprofit group focused on uniting the Black community while connecting cultures in the Valley, hosted the event.
Bethel Garden, an official Texas Historic Landmark, is the former location of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church at 1322 S. 16th St. in McAllen, which was one of the first African American churches in Hidalgo County. The garden is across the street from the former Booker T. Washington High School, the only high school that Black students could attend when schools were segregated.
“This is a wonderful historical place,” said Theresa Gatling, co-founder and co-president of ViVa. “We want people to know about it because there’s a lot of history in the Valley and a lot of people don’t know about it. We’re celebrating this now with this collaboration with the city and with Village in the Valley and some other community partners to have built this into something that we can be proud of.”
Four new murals painted by Valley artists were unveiled during the dedication ceremony that represent love, faith, hope and education. Artist and former educator Lisa Irby collaborated with other artists from South Texas College to create the murals. Irby, a Mercedes resident, used to attend the church where her art is now displayed.
“It’s such an honor now to have part of the work that God’s given me to now be a part of this given place,” Irby said. “It’s all about hope too when we look at each other. There’s hope, and there’s inspiration and there’s love, and there’s much, much more that we all have to give. So as we walk in this given walk in life, we also have to keep in mind [that] the most important thing of all is our faith.”
Students from McAllen Memorial High School also participated in creating the murals.
“It’s important to always keep the young involved because these are the adults of tomorrow. This is the future of tomorrow,” said art teacher Rina Roberts.
The four murals join muralist Cristela Cano’s Substance of Hope, an art piece that displays the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, Booker T. High School, businesses and homes that were in the neighborhood and children “through their different accolades.”
“Back in 2014 in February, I had not seen this mural,” Cano said. “But it came to me, created by the images of the families that live here, and I’m just so thankful for it. It has changed my life. I come here often, sometimes just to walk around.”
Speakers at the event included McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos, Pastor Al Gatling from the Mount Olive Worship Center, Pastor Nick Maddox who was the last recorded pastor of the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, and Floyd Hannah who attended Booker T. Washington High School and was a member of the Baptist church.
“Shining a light on Black history today is important to understanding ourselves and growing stronger as a nation as it has ever been,” Villalobos said.
After hearing the speakers, attendees were able to walk through the garden, appreciate the murals and grab a food basket donated by H-E-B that contained products from Black-owned businesses.
Vernithia Baylor, who used to help clean the site before the garden space was created, said she believes everyone should visit the Bethel Garden because it is a relaxing experience and a way to recognize history.
The Mission resident said, “They should just come out and visit. It is important. This Rio Grande area is so rich with all types of history, and we need to know everyone’s history so we can be better united in this area.”
Marsha Terry, ViVa’s other co-founder and co-president, said Black History Month might be celebrated during February but it is important to recognize all people of color’s history throughout the year.
“We should just recognize the contributions of all people throughout the entire year. I think Black history is not just about what happens in February, but it’s about the contributions that all people of color, no matter where you come from, that you make to the growth and development of our country year-long.”
ViVa will continue to celebrate Black History Month by hosting a Gospel Night from 6 to 8 p.m. at the McAllen Food Truck Park on Friday with the McAllen Chamber of Commerce as sponsors. For more information about ViVa, visit https://villageinthevalley.org.
View Monitor photojournalist Joel Martinez’s full photo gallery here: