People who rise to be well known in arenas such as sports, music, politics, are usually honored by their hometowns in some fashion. Perhaps a street or civic building or public park is named in their honor. Often the native daughter or son had to overcome severe obstacles on her or his way to being worshiped as a cultural icon in our many non-religious cathedrals. Yet so often one arena is overlooked by our culture.
In 1995 each member of the administrative team of the school where I worked received a book. Our Head of School had been on sabbatical and met its author, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, who had just published I’ve Known Rivers, Lives of Loss and Liberation. The book profiles six people who, as the Hughes’ poem (The Negro Speaks of Rivers) from which the title is taken, says, have known rivers. The first profile, “Katie Cannon: The Fruit of My Labor” shares the story of a Kannapolis native who rose above her beginning as a black female in a segregated and male dominated town. Despite the severe limitations placed on her by her society, she learned that books and education were her way to improve. She says in I’ve Known Rivers, “Education was going to be the ticket out. I thought, I’ve got to excel.” To this future scholar, pastor, and teacher, education was “the life-giving source.” For young females of Dr. Cannon’s era, two options were available-be a domestic or a teacher. Because she had always desired to be a teacher, she accomplished that, but along the way she earned her Doctor of Philosophy degree from Union Theological Seminary, the first black person to do this. She is the first black woman to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Her ticket of education stamped, Pastor Cannon used it to learn, teach, but always remain her identity. As a woman, she learned lessons of oppression because of her sex, and she learned lessons because of skin colon. But despite those barriers, she rose in the academic circles of her chosen life’s work, and her influence as a teacher and minister is her legacy. All of these accomplishments coming out of, even in spite of, her hometown where she, because of her color, could not go to the local library to check-out books.
Pastor Cannon died on August 08, 2018. Now I wait anxiously to see if her hometown will honor her many achievements in any way. Will a street carry her name? One of the local library branches? A lovely park where children are free to play and explore? What, if anything, will be done to honor this highly successful daughter of Kannapolis, or will her lack of cultural fame keep her name and achievements quietly forgotten.
Pastor Cannon does not have the same fame as a sports hero or rock star or politician. Her work was not in the cultural cathedrals of speed, music, or balls, but from the pulpit and classroom and scholarship and by a life lived for an example for women and the marginalized of our culture. Her thirst and desire for knowledge were composed of steely nerve and drive to be better than her beginning. Her success and its lack of being known to the public show the bearings of our culture because her work and legacy are little know or valued by too many people. Dr. Cannon chose education, that under-valued arena, to teach, preach, and change lives.
I hope Kannapolis honors its daughter in an appropriate manner. After all, she rose from its soil. Her work will last through all the lives she influenced.