Sister-friends that serve together, enrich lives together.
This bold truth was never more evident than at the “Evergreen & Ever True to Harlem” 13th Biennial Holiday Gala hosted by the 34-year-old Metro-Manhattan (NY) Chapter of The Links, Incorporated—which focuses on enriching, sustaining, and ensuring the culture and economic survival of African Americans and other persons of African ancestry in Harlem and abroad.
Amid monolithic columns, 70-foot ceilings replete with a Wedgewood dome, Cipriani Wall Street’s—once home to the New York Merchants’ Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange—breathtakingly grand Greek architecture served as the perfect backdrop to the evening’s black-tie soiree. As more than 700 guests sauntered in dressed in their finest attire, they were greeted by an assembly line of nearly a dozen of Cipriani’s staff donning white tuxedo jackets and black pants to efficiently check coats. Once inside, the illuminated green lights transformed the luxurious venue into an Emerald City complementing The Links colors of green and white. Throngs of well-heeled attendees enjoyed an hour of cocktails before sitting at white tables complemented with gold chairs, and candlelit glass vases. Lush foliage of white magnolias, roses, green hydrangeas and camellia branches designed by Marie’s Blooms owner Marie Jean-Baptiste, added an air of femininity.
After a four-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Links’ party with a purpose didn’t disappoint. Strategically placed, flat-screen televisions ensured guests didn’t miss a second, allowing them to view from any vantage point. First up was honoree and Spoonbread owner Norma Jean Darden who received the Entrepreneur of Excellence Award. She proudly spoke of her intergenerational connection to the organization. “My mother Jean Darden was a founding member of the Essex County (NJ) Chapter; my Aunt Norma was a founding member of one The Links chapters in North Carolina, and my Aunt Lillian was a member of The Links in St. Petersburg, VA., so it was a very poignant and proud moment for me as…my memories of them working so hard to do good works in their [communities],” shared Darden.
The evening’s second recipient was Corporate Champion Awardee—Harlem Eat-Up’s Marcus Samuelsson—owner of Manhattan’s Red Rooster & Hav & Mar, a Chelsea seafood restaurant that boasts an all- female leadership. “It was important for me to create a platform for women of color in leadership positions. That support begins in our communities and The Links is a backbone against which to measure the success of that mission,” explained Samuelsson.
New York Mayor Eric Adams took centerstage to present the Inaugural Hazel Nell Dukes Social Justice Award to its namesake Civil Rights Activist and President of the NAACP New York State Conference Dr. Hazel Dukes. “Hazel has been a champion, an activist, a leader, a hero, and most importantly a friend,” said Mayor Adams beaming with pride. “She has broken down barriers and inspired so many at the forefront in the fight for equity and human rights.” Dr. Dukes, a charter member for 34 years, explained what the recognition meant to her. “What is so unique is the intergenerational spirit of this great sisterhood. This award renews and refuels my spirit to continue to be an advocate for the community.”
Soon after Extra’s Carlos Greer jumpstarted the text-to-give campaign and within a record 15 minutes more than $40,000 was donated. Not only is it a testament to the staying power and reach of its Metro-Manhattan Chapter and The Links organization but it’s a blessing to the Harlem community. “I am proud of their effort and am overjoyed to celebrate their success,” said Ethel Isaacs Williams, J.D., National President, The Links Incorporated and member of the West Palm Beach (FL) Chapter. “When we combine their work with the efforts of our other 298 chapters located in 41 states, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Bahamas and the United Kingdom, we can see the reach and impact that more than 17,000 members of The Links is having in the communities around the world every single day. It brings to life our mission of friends transforming communities through service.”
After paying a respectful nod to the Triple Threat honorees, partygoers turnt up to classic hip hop and R&B spun by Harlem-bred turntablist DJ SNS. A pearl floor emblazoned with The Links logo and motto “Linked in Friendship, Connected in Service” made it easy for everyone to glide and groove to a musical gumbo including Luther Vandross’ “Never Too Much,” Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin,’” Mary Jane Girls “All Night Long,” and Drake’s “Nice for What.” Others stole a few moments to strike a pose in one of the three photo booths using various affirmations and declarations such as “flawless” and “time to party” as props before rejoining the crowd.
Longtime and new members praised the Metro-Manhattan Chapter’s work. “I’ve always had a heart for service,” says Erika Liles, gala chair and member since 2017. “What I love about The Links is we do the work. We don’t outsource it. It’s us interfacing with [the people]; whether we are in Haiti, a country we adopted, providing toilets and food, or teaching makeup application to members of St. Mary’s Divas who are living with AIDS and HIV. We are on the ground.”
CEO of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agency and Chair of the NYC Racial Justice Commission Jennifer Jones Austin agreed: “I get to participate and engage in community with sisters working side by side without putting on my CEO [hat] but walking and talking with people in the Harlem community. We can do programs and continue to have an impact, but we also need to change the structures that make these programs necessary in the first place…and we do that on the ground by changing the laws and how the government interacts with people.” To date Metro-Manhattan’s service falls under the organizations five programmatic thrusts: Services to Youth, The Arts, National Trends and Services, International Trends and Serves as well as Health and Human Service.
Yet, it’s the work of these selfless professional women that Harlem assembly member Inez Dickens recognizes as the fabric of the chapter’s legacy. “It’s women who get together, share ideas, make connections, and quietly do the work," she shared. "Simply put they are unsung sheroes, advocating, administering, helping to pass legislation, encouraging dialogue between the candidates and [people] as well as economic empowerment and growth within the Black and brown communities.”
After an inspirational yet fun evening, DJ SNS announces the last song. The crowd moans in unison not wanting the evening to end—reluctantly shuffling along still hyped about the greatness they’d witnessed. The Metro-Manhattan Chapter’s President Kim Copeland too has taken in all the positive energy from this enchanted evening while pondering The Links’ legacy. “I hope people will say that we led with love because love simply doesn’t fail, it is too powerful," said Copeland. "None of us is perfect but if we aspire to love then we’re going to be all right. No matter what that needs to always be the self-connecting mechanism [when serving], Am I acting out of love?” And that four-letter word always conquers all.