50 men dressed in suits and ties strutted and strode into a banquet hall in downtown Chicago as their family members clapped and whistled on the sidelines.
The men, in careers ranging from artists and community activists to entrepreneurs and attorneys, were honored by the Chicago Defender for being “men of excellence.” The awardees took center stage at the grand ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Chicago on April 26.
Now in its 12th year, the Chicago Defender’s Men of Excellence annual ceremony aims to recognize men for “their leadership and commitment to excellence, empowerment and high levels of achievement.”
These men “exemplify excellence through stature, tenacity [and] community involvement that characterizes the essence of manhood all while maintaining the balance of being husbands, fathers, helpmates and professionals,” said radio announcer Kenya Simone who emceed the event.
Joseph Mason II, 27-year-old principal of Urban Prep Englewood, was one of many that night. “It’s always been my dream to be an educator,” said Mason who served as a teacher and assistant principal in Texas for five years before moving back to his hometown. He was born and raised in Chicago and upon returning, accepted the position as principal because he felt like he could make more of an impact here, he said.
Mason said being honored as a man of excellence is “humbling because it just means continue to do what I’m doing in terms of impacting my community [and] just trying to be a guy that changes lives.”
The award this year is centered around mentorship and Mason is doing exactly that.
“[I’m] trying to instill wisdom and inspire [the young men who were just like myself growing up] to do more and see more and be more, so that’s really my goal,” said Mason.
Reverend T.D. Hughes, 38, was another honoree. He’s not just a spiritual leader at Third Baptist Church of Chicago; he is also somewhat of a teacher. Hughes, who used to work at JP Morgan for 14 years, said he is taking what he learned from being a senior associate vice president at the company and passing it down to his community by teaching them financial literacy.
“Theology and the church are obviously our primary goals, but you know pastors need to speak to all of the community’s needs — financially, socially, economically, all of that,” said Hughes who left JP Morgan to become a full-time pastor.
“I think that I’m still working, so I’m impressed that they would even think that what I’ve done thus far is worthy of the honor, but I just want to do the work,” Hughes said. “The accolades and all of the things that come with it are a blessing but for me the fulfillment comes with the work.”
The men were not only recognized by the Chicago Defender. They were also recognized by their families who attended the event.
“Men of excellence keep their focus, and they stay on track and press for the mark of the high calling, you know, not just accept any kind of mediocrity. I see that in [my son],” said James Wheeler, father of honoree James A. Wheeler who is the chief operating officer of WDB Marketing. His company has worked with more than 1,000 minority-owned businesses for 13 years.
“Awards like this help us acknowledge the good in the world,” community activist and class president of the 2019 Men of Excellence Andrew Holmes said to the crowd of hundreds. “It puts a spotlight on the work we have done and the help that we have [offered] for the next generation of men that’s coming behind us.”
As Holmes delivered his speech, among the audience were three young men who performed inspirational speeches during the program. Gabriel Gatheright, 14, was one them.
Gatheright said seeing so many Black men from his community honored for their achievements motivated him. “It showed me that anything is possible; Even the little man and the underdog can be shown and be, like, this person in the news and stuff like that in a good way…not a bad way.”
Hiram Jackson believes that this annual ceremony is a way to counter inaccurate stereotypes about Black men. “Black men in general have been maligned and characterized, and, you know, the world sees us a certain way because of how the six o’clock news portrays us,” said Jackson, Chief Executive Officer of Real Times Media, the parent company of the Chicago Defender.
Approximately 550 men have been awarded by the Chicago Defender over the span of 12 years. This year, 100 men were nominated according to Dyanna Lewis, vice president of marketing and sales of the Chicago Defender. Those nominees were narrowed down to 50 men who were selected according to a specific criterion, which included a recommendation from former honorees, Jackson said.
The Chicago Defender also honors women of excellence.
“Our bench is deep,” said Jackson to the audience. “That’s the point that we’re trying to make — that there are wonderful Black men and Black women in our community, and our job is to search for them and celebrate African-American achievement every day.”