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Program weaves picture of black history

A Hernando group honors the achievements of African-Americans, including an area woman who designed clothes for celebrities.

When Charlene Johnston needed inspiration in planning this year's Black History Month celebration, she needed to look only as far as her mother.

Days spent together in the basement of their New York home, where her mother designed dresses for the likes of Lena Horne and Count Basie's wife, filled her memory.

On Thursday, she got to honor her mother in front a crowd of more than 100 gathered in Bouma Hall for the African American Club of Hernando County's New Millenium Black History Month Celebration.

Rosenda Batson, 87, sat quietly in a wheelchair at the front of the room as people filled the community center for the annual event. Dressed in a black-and-white patterned two-piece suit, she watched the crowd and reminisced about her days as a designer, stopping occasionally to smile at friends and point at Johnston, saying, "That's my daughter."

Batson began designing at age 20 when friends started noticing her clothes.

"They liked them so much that they asked me to make clothes for them, too," she said. "People don't just walk in your house unless they figure you can do something."

Batson still remembers the dress she designed for Horne, a long-sleeved, elegant taffeta affair _ simple, but form-fitting. She doesn't know how Horne heard of her, but she didn't flinch when the singer and her entourage came to the door.

"I wasn't nervous," she said. "I would be now, I guess."

Batson gave up designing and sewing clothes five years ago when she moved to Florida. Now she lives in a Forest Oak Villas senior apartment.

Johnston helped plan the celebration along with her co-chairwoman, Juanita Odom. It ran all afternoon as people wandered among displays of African art, artifacts and jewelry.

Fred Seale brought his collection of comic books based on the lives of famous black Americans. He clapped loudly after club president Janet Moses delivered a speech that celebrated the efforts of several black inventors.

"We made our contributions just like everybody else," Seale said later. "It's just to remind people of who we are. We know who we are."

After a buffet dinner, there was a fashion show featuring stories about several African-American clothes designers from the mid-1800s forward. The subjects included former slave Elizabeth Keckley, who Johnston said was commissioned by Abraham Lincoln's wife to make her inaugural gown, and Rosa Parks, the seamstress who became famous for her refusal to give up her seat on an Alabama bus.

Remembering these women, Johnston said, is critical.

"You have to look back at ancestry in order to see where you're going," she said. "It helps us to maintain our identity."

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