Photo by George Holcomb
Kevin Cheri (left), retired superintendent of the Buffalo National River and a member of the North Arkansas College Board of Trustees, is the 2019 recipient of the Arkansas Martin Luther King Commission’s coveted Trailblazer Award. Harrison Mayor Jerry Jackson was at the ceremony in Little Rock where Cheri was honored during the Commission’s Mega King Fest, an annual day of service and celebration at Philander Smith College.
Harrison resident Kevin Cheri is the 2019 recipient of the Arkansas Martin Luther King Commission’s (MLKC) coveted Trailblazer Award.
Each year the Arkansas MLKC honors persons and organizations who advance Dr. King’s legacy through service and accomplishment.
“Trailblazers create a path,” said Dushun Scarbrough, director of the Arkansas MLKC. “As the first African American employee at Buffalo National River, Mr. Cheri is indeed a trailblazer and an example for present and future generations in northwest Arkansas and throughout the state.
“He is a valued community leader and mentor. He works to promote Dr. King’s vision of a ‘beloved community’, promoting diversity and service to mankind.”
Harrison Mayor Jerry Jackson presented the award at the Commission’s Mega King Fest, an annual day of service and celebration at Philander Smith College in Little Rock.
Jackson recapped Cheri’s record with the National Park Service (NPS).
“Kevin’s career with the National Park Service began in 1974 when he worked as a seasonal ranger at Carlsbad Caverns National Park through Xavier University’s Cooperative Education program,” said Jackson.
“In 1978 he became a permanent Law Enforcement Ranger at Buffalo Point, becoming the first African American employee at the Buffalo National River.
“Kevin worked for eight years as Supervisory Park Ranger at Canyonlands National Park. During much of that time, he was the only African American ranger in the NPS Rocky Mountain Region.
“Kevin is a remarkable advocate for the Buffalo National River, where he retired last year as park superintendent. He and his family frequently hike and float there, and he understands the river’s power as an ambassador for the state of Arkansas.
“Kevin has successfully increased diversity in every park he has served. He is passionate about mentoring employees of all backgrounds to support a strong workforce into the future. He serves on the Parks and Conservation Advisory Council at Texas A&M University and also works with the Harrison Community Task Force on Race Relations.”
Cheri accepted the honor with humility.
“Throughout my career, I have served in positions where minorities, especially African-Americans, had never felt comfortable or even considered working,” he said.
Cheri noted that he sometimes met with resistance and “less than welcoming attitudes” of local residents and, occasionally, even fellow employees.
“As a result of my curiosity and passion to see and learn more about the nation’s natural and cultural wonders, I soon realized the significant role I played in breaking barriers and opening doors,” he continued.
“It became my personal mission to do all I could to introduce other under-exposed groups to parks and the areas where they were located. At the same time, I was committed to giving each community where I lived the opportunity to get to know me. Especially those communities where few, if any, minorities lived or worked.
“While I am pleased to receive this recognition,” said Cheri, “I would be remiss to not recognize that much of it could not have been achieved without the help and support of others.
“More specifically, this award speaks highly of Harrison and the surrounding communities who have welcomed and supported me during my time as Superintendent of Buffalo National River and as a resident of north-central Arkansas.
Cheri said he was proud to accept the award on behalf of himself and his community.
“I proudly accept this award in recognition of our combined efforts and continued commitment to promoting Harrison as a great community where all are welcomed,” he concluded.
Harrison's Diversity and Race Relations
The City of Harrison is a warm, friendly place. This town is dedicated to attracting and welcoming people of good will. We encourage people of every ethnic and religious background to join us. Come here and build on our strengths.
In our nation, it’s hard to find any community without bigots and racists. We sure don’t claim to be so fortunate or so virtuous. Our problem is that our town struggles with a wide-spread and long-lasting perception that we are dominated by bigotry and racism.
The roots of that perception lie in our history and in unfortunate current associations. We can’t avoid it. We can’t pretend there’s nothing to it or that it doesn’t matter. History and circumstance have forced us to face up to it.
Many decent people of this town have placidly accepted this handicap for many years, believing the image would fade in time as the racial divide in the United States healed. Instead, the impact of the internet and social media has magnified the negative message spread by small groups on our fringes.
In 2003, Mayor Bob Reynolds convened the Harrison Community Task Force on Race Relations, a group of local clergy and volunteers, to tell the story of our town and its people. He perceived that the time had come for Harrison’s people to represent themselves as they truly are; imperfect, flawed people who share both a troubled past and a deep and abiding respect for our fellow human beings; people who are moved to follow the most basic command - love our neighbors.
Presenting a Truthful Image
We present the opinions and aspirations of people of good will in a small town in the Ozarks of North Arkansas. Our story of friendly and decent people is in stark contrast to the story some people have cultivated for many years. Those people have tried to show our town as a place where those who don’t fit a narrow mold are unwelcome and unsafe.
We are determined to reject that lie and show the truth.
Educating and Informing
We have worked consistently to tell the story of the welcoming people of this community. We present the case of people who go far beyond toleration to preach and practice love for all our neighbors. People in this community, and in this area, tend to be highly tolerant of their neighbors' differences. We are strong believers in everyone's right to be left alone. Once the community came to understand that white supremacy is not a personal foible, but a damaging influence on our community commerce and reputation, it began to respond to change those perceptions.
Resistance to the influence of the white supremacy movement has not been passive or purely reactive in Harrison. In some measure, that's due to the Task Force's recognition that Harrison’s menacing image wasn’t the residual effect of our history that would fade in time but a planned attack by white supremacists to use our community’s name for their personal gain. The Harrison Task Force on Race Relations has worked for years to promote and foster the image and reality of Harrison as a community where all people are treated with warmth, dignity, and respect. We are a rallying point for people who believe in fair treatment for everyone, in equal protection under the law, and in the principle of judging a person by that person's character and value to the community.