NAACP turns to Holsey
At 22, he’s youngest branch president in Pennsylvania
After Blair County NAACP President Don Witherspoon died in December at 77, many in the community recalled how his deep experience and broad circle of acquaintances helped him promote and protect the interests of Black people in the area.
Branch members voted Wednesday to elevate someone less than one-third Witherspoon’s age, hoping to tap the energy of youth — although their new leader has accumulated his own significant collection of experiences in a short time.
Andrae Holsey, 22, is the youngest branch president in Pennsylvania and may be the youngest ever in the state, yet he can point to his role as head drum major at Altoona Area High School, his tenure at Penn State Altoona that should lead to a degree in political science this year, his 4.5 years in the U.S. Army Reserves that will mean a commission upon his graduation from college and his experience as a restaurant server, a paralegal and as an operative running ballot initiatives in Pittsburgh.
That is all preamble for turning his father’s volunteer lawn-cutting service into an actual business and, he hopes, attendance at law school.
“People trust me to take a leadership position,” Holsey said in an interview this week.
Several weeks before he died, Witherspoon called Holsey and told him his energy was waning, and he was “ready to pass the torch,” Holsey said.
It helped that Holsey had shown the older man respect, making sure that Witherspoon was included in last year’s march after the death of George Floyd.
It was important not to forget “someone who had walked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Holsey said.
Holsey will become head of a new group of officers who are mostly young like him: First Vice President Darius Morgan, Second Vice President Paige Lightner, treasurer Jeremiah Witherspoon Jr., assistant treasurer Sherry Dilling and secretary Erica McNeal.
Their youth will be counterbalanced by a new and mostly older group of executive committee members: Chairman Greg McNeal, a former state police officer and also Erica’s husband; Will Lightner, Paige’s father; Donna Gority, retired Blair County commissioner; and Tressa Weymer, Holsey’s fiance.
Has faced racism
The son of a Black father and white mother, Holsey has navigated racial issues already.
As a mixed-race kid, he had to consider “very carefully” when choosing where to sit in the cafeteria at lunch at school, he said.
The African-American kids often sat by themselves, and sometimes their table was full, he said.
When that happened, he had to sit at the end of a table with Caucasian kids.
He remembers getting chocolate milk thrown at him when he did that.
In one eighth grade class that involved role-playing for a lesson on slavery, the teacher singled him out, saying, “I’ll have Andrae go pick my cotton,” Holsey said.
As the only “brown kid” in class, it made him feel “alone,” he said.
There was already a tendency to feel that way, because of his color, but it hadn’t “necessarily (been) on the forefront of my mind” until then, he said.
Others in the class laughed when the teacher said that, he said.
He didn’t say anything himself.
Later, he talked about it, though, to a student who was half-Cuban. That student had a similar experience, when a teacher singled him out as part of a discussion on sugar cane, Holsey said.
Such invitations to awkwardness from white people “come off the lips easy when they go unchallenged,” Holsey said.
He also witnessed racially insensitive behavior while with his father, a veteran of the Vietnam War and a former football player — an imposing man who was nevertheless non-confrontational.
Holsey’s father worked on the custodial staff in the Hollidaysburg Area School District, and once, while he and his co-workers were sitting at a table, someone called him the N-word, Holsey said.
His father let it go.
His mantra was “too blessed to be stressed,” Holsey said.
He heard his father being described as “one of the good ones,” by someone who didn’t realize how patronizing that was, according to Holsey.
Overcoming family tensions
Racial prejudice in central Pennsylvania can be worse than in the deep South, because it’s typically “discreet,” Holsey said.
It comes out in job interviews, applications for scholarships, conversations in line at McDonald’s, he said.
Holsey also experienced racial tensions in the extended families on both his mother’s and father’s sides, he said.
In both families, a great-grandparent neutralized the problem.
On his mother’s side, his great-grandmother, an immigrant who often called herself stupid, because she hadn’t gotten past third grade, kissed his father on both cheeks, European style, the first time she met him, then smiled and observed that it was the first time she’d ever kissed a black man — and that “it wasn’t bad,” Holsey said.
On his father’s side, his great-grandfather, Nelson Cooper, who’d lived in a shack outside a mansion when he was young and who had taught himself to read from the Bible, welcomed his mother into the family, “when no one else would.”
Until then, family members with “cold feelings” toward Caucasians had wondered why his father had wanted to marry a white woman.
Afterward, those cold feelings disappeared, because the patriarch’s blessing had made his mother “part of the family,” Holsey said.
He doesn’t pretend to be colorblind, Holsey said.
But he does prefer people not to be treated “because of how they look on the outside,” he said, citing Martin Luther King, who spoke of basing relations between people on the “content of their character.”
People don’t realize how many issues they have in common, cutting across race, he said. That is a good basis for “solidarity,” he said.
As branch president, he intends to interact with the county district attorney’s office to help ensure fairness in matters of bail and incarceration before trial; in connection with competence of counsel for people who are accused and in connection with sentencing, he said.
That matches the “mandate” that has come down from the national NAACP through the state conference to the local branches, said state NAACP President Kenneth Huston.
“Fair prosecutorial oversight,” Huston said. “Truth in sentencing.”
It can be a difficult subject.
“Longstanding differences in how we perceive the criminal justice system are still very evident today and, in many ways, continue to define the racial divide in the country,” states a 2011 article in The Prison Journal Supplement, titled “Addressing Racial Disparities in Incarceration.”
But “measuring relative rates of involvement in criminal activity is a complicated task,” the article states.
Varying outcomes that seem to be based on racial differences may actually be more reflective of social class, according to the article.
Yet “policy and practice decisions contribute to these outcomes,” the article states.
Such decisions aren’t necessarily based on “conscious racism,” “but they frequently may include unconscious bias in the use of discretion, allocation of resources or public policy decisionmaking,” the article states.
Moreover, “racial disparities in the justice system are cumulative,” and they widen as cases proceed, according to the article.
“Defendants who are detained in jail prior to trial are more likely to be convicted and receive lengthier prison terms,” the article states.
Holsey also plans to pay attention to racial issues in schools, in recreational settings and in hospitals, he said.
Witherspoon had a knack for “dissipating situations fast,” so Holsey has a difficult standard to live up to, he said.
The difficulty is compounded by how quickly emotions can flare when racial discrimination is involved, he said.
And yet, it’s important for him to bring his “youth and energy” to the task, he said.
Witherspoon’s loss was “devastating,” but Holsey seems to be “a natural choice,” said Gority, the executive committee member.
“He’s ready, willing and able,” Gority said. “Fully invested.”
He’s also a “gentleman,” like Witherspoon, she added.
“A very nice young man,” said Huston, the state president. “(With) an impeccable reputation and character.”
But he won’t be doing it by himself, Huston said.
Formal complaints and grievances brought to the branch get “vetted” by all the officers and executive committee members, each of whom have a democratic vote in the outcome, he said.
While Holsey is the youngest president of a Pennsylvania branch, the NAACP national office reported that youth is also being served in Georgia, where Kiaira Jackson is the 20-year-old Dougherty County, Georgia, NAACP president. She was elected at age 19 in August 2019.
Holsey will have help from the state conference, Huston said.
“His success is our success,” he said.
The NAACP is a volunteer organization, with only people in the national office being paid, Huston said.
Holsey’s tenure will be successful if the new leadership can bring more unity to the area, the kind of unity represented by people of different races singing together, according to Paige Lightner.
Holsey is “perfect presidential material,” Lightner said.
“He gets out there,” she said. “He wants to make a change, and he’s not afraid of being part of that change.”
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.