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Muskegon library still funding community Black History Month events with bequest of beloved resident

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MUSKEGON, MI – Bess Commodore, a longtime Muskegon resident who was a lover of books and learning about the world, continues to have an impact on the community more than a decade after her death.

The Black clinical laboratory scientist, who died at age 83 in 2011, left large donations to several Muskegon organizations in her will, including $25,000 to Hackley Public Library earmarked for Black History Month programming.

Every February, community members participating in the library’s various programs and activities celebrating Black history and culture are reminded of Commodore’s bequest.

Related: ‘Eclectic reader,’ longtime Muskegon resident wills $25,000 to Hackley Library for Black History Month programming

“We are always sure to mention her at the beginning of every program or during the program,” said Mallory Metzger, marketing and program coordinator for Hackley Public Library. “We incorporated her into our Black History Month trivia contest that we had earlier in the month. She was one of the answers to a question about the generous bequest that she left.”

Commodore could have been the subject of other trivia questions. Before retiring in Muskegon, Commodore was a clinical laboratory scientist delegate in Minnesota who represented the U.S on an international level for over 25 years, Metzger said.

In her obituary, the family says she was also “the first Afro-American to serve as a Docent (a knowledgeable guide for visitors) for the Muskegon Museum of Art,” another organization Commodore left a financial gift in her will.

During her years in Muskegon, Metzger said Commodore would frequently visit the library, where she often spoke about the newest books and donated novels after finishing them.

“I never had the pleasure of meeting her, but I wish I would have because she sounded like an amazing woman,” Metzger said. “The information that has been kind of passed down to some of the staff at the library is that Bess would often spend time downtown venturing to the different organizations within Muskegon.”

Born Bessie Lee Neal in Arkansas 1978, Commodore graduated high school in St. Louis, Missouri in1947, later marrying William E. Commodore in 1965, who preceded her in death, according to Hackley Public Library.

Described as “frugal,” Bess Commodore would often take the bus to the library from her apartment near Muskegon Community College, Metzger said. She visited the library several times a week and became known as a frequent patron.

Because of her love for the library, Commodore later served on the board of the Friends of Hackley Public Library, further supporting and participating in community-driven organizations like the Muskegon Museum of Art, located next to the library.

“We try to mention her at least once during programs and events by giving an introduction,” Metzger said. “And during that introduction, we mention what programs are to come, what’s going to be happening during that program, but we also give a huge thank you to Bess Commodore. We always want to make it known to the audience and to the attendees that we can do this program because of her, which is amazing.”

Besides the trivia contest, there have been multiple events this month including:

  • A program to learn about the rich history of textile making in Africa and how those roots manifested in African American quilting tradition, “Take and Make Quilt Squares.”
  • A scavenger hunt, that’s ongoing throughout February, uses fun clues and helpful tidbits to discover details about several African American authors in the library’s collection.
  • Open Mic Poetry Night encouraged people to share their favorite poem, either one they wrote or from a favorite African American poet.
  • The Sweet Soul Food Dessert Contest was available in-person and via Zoom.

The library still has Black History Month events coming up that the community can look forward to, Metzger said.

On Saturday, Feb. 19 from 12 to 3 p.m., teens are invited to drop into the Hackley Young Adult Room and “create a poem/art/masterpiece!” during the Upcycled Poetry for Teens program. On Monday, Feb. 28, there is a Black Hair Care Clinic from 6 to 7 p.m. with Neitra Hood that is available in-person and via Zoom by registering here or calling (231) 722-8000.

Below are some Black History Month events held by the library in years past:

  • Showing the movie “Hidden Figures,” about a team of Black female mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program.
  • Curtis Taylor jazz event
  • “The Hate U Give” book discussion
  • “The Legacy of the Negro Leagues” in baseball
  • Ebony Road Players performances
  • “Cooking with Soul” with Chef LaKisha Harris
  • Discussion of the book “Becoming” by former First Lady Michelle Obama
  • Discussion of the book “The Sweetest Sound” by Sherri Winston
  • Jon Covington and the Men from the documentary ‘Black Man’

“We want to make sure that the community remembers and knows that it’s because of her (Commodore) that these programs and events are made possible for Black History Month,” Metzger said. “And it was really important for her to make sure these funds go towards furthering insight and knowledge into Black History and events that we can enjoy every year.”

To learn more about Commodore’s legacy and events, visit the Hackley Public Library website here.

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