Eight couples inducted into Tri-Cities Black Marriage Hall of Fame

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 22, 2014 

Lyndon Burch hears all of the negative statistics about black youths in prison, single-mother homes, generational poverty and children doing poorly in school.

So he started Black Marriage Day in Columbus four years ago in hopes it could help build a stronger community.

Today, he will continue his campaign with a Power of Marriage Conference at the Girls Inc. Baker Center, 3535 Levy Road. The event, organized by the Tri-Cities and the Columbus area Family and Marriage Education Group, will begin at 8:30 a.m. and feature various local speakers.

Eight couples will also be inducted into the Tri-Cities Black Marriage Hall of Fame: • Eric and Nina Seldon • Drs. Gary and Brett Murphy-Dawson • Gerald and Towanda Russell • Carmel and Vanessa Biggers • Alonza and Caponia Whitaker • The Rev. Willie and Mother Therese Phillips • Pastor Farnsworth and Elder Patricia Coleman • Derrick and Josina Pittman-Greene. The Greenes were named “Newlywed Couple That Shows Great Promise.”

The weekend was originally supposed to be a two-day event with Harold Arnold, president of Philadelphia-based Discovering Family International, as guest speaker today, and an appearance by Judge Lynn Toler of TV’s “Divorce Court” at a Sunday Hall of Fame dinner. But those plans were canceled earlier this week because sponsorships didn’t materialize, Burch said. Still, he hopes to have a successful one-day event.

“The focus on black marriage is because we want to cherish the marriages of yesteryear, celebrate the marriages of today and encourage healthy marriages and relationships for tomorrow,” he said. “The focus is because our community is disintegrating right in front of our eyes because of the lack of marriage and the family foundation.

“When you look at our prison population, we find that most of the crimes are committed by people that come from single-family households where their parents never married,” he added. “And we feel that if we focus on having more families, there will be an outcome of children doing better in school and less behavior problems.”

More than half of black children live in single-parent homes, according statistics on Tri-Cities Black Marriage website. Nearly 70 percent of them are born out of wedlock, and 80 percent of prisoners come from single-parent households.

Yet, according to information provide by heritage.org, marriage reduces poverty for families of all races. Among blacks, nearly 40 percent of those living in poverty were non-married and only 13 percent were married.

“Even when studies control for a wide range of variables, they consistently find that married black adults, compared to those who are unmarried, have more income, are less likely to face poverty and are more likely to be happy,” according to the Tri-cities Black Hall of Fame website. “Marriage also appears to promote better family functioning.”

Three of the Hall of Fame couples shared their secrets to a successful marriage with the Ledger-Enquirer.

DRS. GARY AND BRETT MURPHY-DAWSON

Gary and Brett, both 43, met as undergraduate students at Tulane University in New Orleans.

“She saw me on the dance floor and decided she couldn’t live without me,” Gary quipped.

But after a good laugh, they tell the real story.

They were both pre-med majors and college athletes. Gary ran track and Brett played tennis.

They began dating after they enrolled in medical school at Tulane, where they were among eight black students in a class of 150. The couple became engaged and later tied the knot on June 21, 1997, three weeks after graduation.

Now Brett is a child psychiatrist and medical director of the New Horizons community board. Gary is a pain specialist in private practice at River City Rehabilitation and Spinal Specialists. They are also parents of children ages 13, 11 and 7.

Brett said she and Gary had examples of strong marriages around them growing up. She said it also helps that they are friends.

Gary said the biggest challenge in marriage is adapting to change.

“I think being able to adapt to all the changes that marriage brings, for better for worse, when there are health problems, all of those things,” he said. “Just being able to be yourself with the person you love. They love you when you go bald, when you get big around the mid-section, and just knowing that someone always cares for you and has your back under every circumstance.”

CARMEL AND VANESSA BIGGERS

Carmel and Vanessa Biggers met one summer at the Columbus Youth Opportunity program. He was the supervisor and she was the nurse. “With me it was just love at first sight, from the time I saw her, I knew she was going to be my wife,” Carmel said.

Vanessa said she was attracted to his desire to better himself.

“At that time he was a senior in college at Gustava Adolphus (College) in Minnesota, and that was very impressive to me being that I had no relatives in my family who had graduated from college,” she said.

They got married May 24, 1973, at the courthouse in Phenix City. Fifteen years later, they had a wedding to renew their vows. Carmel, 62, and Vanessa, 57, are both retired principals from the Muscogee County School District. They have two grown sons who live in Atlanta.

But it was tough the first 10 years, the couple said.

“The first 10 years, we were just married and didn’t know what we were doing,” she said. “It wasn’t until the Lord became an integral part of our relationship that we knew exactly why we were married.”

Vanessa said they also got to know each other on a deeper level and are now soulmates.

“I don’t think we would be together today if we didn’t become friends,” she said, “because Carmel truly is my best friend.”

GERALD AND TOWANDA RUSSELL

Gerald, 45, and Towanda Russell, 43, had been dating for two years before he popped the question. He just showed up to her job one day and announced he had joined the Army.

“I told her you can go with me, but we’re going to have to get married or I won’t be able to afford it,” said Gerald. “She was 17 and had to get parental consent.”

Gerald, who was 20 at the time, asked Towanda’s mother for her daughter’s hand in marriage.

Her mother didn’t say yes or no. So two months later, the couple exchanged vows at the home of a bishop in Alabama City. There were no wedding guests, just the couple and the minister. That was August 1989.

Twenty-five years later, the couple has a 21-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son. And they’re planning a wedding for their silver anniversary.

The couple said their marriage is based on trust and faith in God. Gerald spent 23 years in the Army and was deployed multiple times. But he always knew his wife would be there when he got home.

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