Theron McCabe told students Friday that he remembered a time when racial equality had a long way to go in Craven County.
McCabe, a Craven County commissioner, was honored during a Black History Month program at Havelock Middle School.
"It was in the ‘50s. My brother and I went to a restaurant in New Bern. We had to go to the back to be served," McCabe said.
McCabe told of having different bathrooms and different water fountains for "colored and white people."
"Their water was cool. Ours was warm," McCabe said.
Havelock Middle Principal Tabari Wallace described McCabe as a dedicated and loyal servant to the citizens of Craven County.
"He always answers the phone," Wallace said. "Even though he’s a politician, he always answers the phone for the person or the organization that’s calling."
McCabe had a career as a New York City police officer before he returned home to become the first African-American man to serve three terms as chief of the Harlowe Volunteer Fire Department.
"God has given me a gift and I have achieved a lot in my time," said McCabe.
Also honored Friday was Gerald Johnson, a long-time Craven County School administrator and former assistant principal at Havelock Middle.
"His motto is ‘I don’t teach to make a living. I teach to make a life,’" Wallace said during his introduction of Johnson, whom he also described as a friend, mentor, confidant and trailblazing leader.
"My mother told me to study hard because once you got it up here," Johnson said, pointing to his head, "nobody can take it away from you."
"You are destined to be somebody," Johnson told the students gathered at the event. "Take your neighbor by the hand and say ‘Neighbor, I am somebody and so are you.’"
Johnson told the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders not to waste the opportunity to obtain an education.
"There’s dignity in all work, whether you are a ditch digger or a professor," he said.
Victor Taylor, a New Bern alderman, and recent recipient of the Larkins Award, one of North Carolina’s highest honors, also spoke at the event.
"You have a dream. Make your dream a reality," Taylor told the students.
The words capped a 90-minute event speckled with prose, poetry and songs telling the centuries-long struggle for equality for African-Americans, from the bonds of slavery to the Emancipation Proclamation, the passage of the Civil Rights Act to the election of President Barack Obama.