Published January 21. 2013 4:00AM Updated January 21. 2013 1:36PM
New London - A city native who received the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. scholarship more than 25 years ago returned Sunday with a message to the nine young men and women selected last fall to carry on the good works and hopeful message of the slain civil rights leader.
"You all are being called to do something great," said Roxana Walker-Canton, a documentary filmmaker and professor of new media at Fairfield University.
Walker-Canton was the keynote speaker at the 29th Annual Ecumenical Service honoring King, a celebration at St. James Church that brought area churches and community members together to remember him through song, dance and fellowship.
The service centered on the teens from nine area high schools who had been selected by the Board of Trustees of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Trust Fund to receive $20,000 scholarships.
Trust fund member Ariana Abreu, a scholarship recipient herself, introduced each scholar and asked their families to stand and be recognized. Abreu listed the colleges of choice for each recipient and their intended areas of study: teaching and school administration, pediatric oncology, psychiatry, nursing, international relations and psychology.
Walker-Canton, a New London High School graduate, received a $5,000 King scholarship in 1987. She graduated magna cum laude from Spelman College, then went on to receive master's degrees in fine arts from Ohio State and Temple universities. She studied in Ghana and Madrid and said she found her life's work in teaching and documenting the history and culture of black people.
"It's a pleasure to come home to New London after many years of being away," said Canton-Walker, who now lives in Hamden with her husband and three children.
Quoting the celebrated author and poet Alice Walker, Canton-Walker told the scholars the community has invested in them, and now it is time to "find the work that your soul must have."
Canton-Walker said King, speaking to college students in the '60s, predicted correctly that they would be remembered in 50 years as the "generation of integration." She predicted this generation would be remembered for its scientific and technological advances.
"You must ask yourself as you use this new technology, does the use of this fall in line with what you say you believe in as a believer in God?" Canton-Walker said. "What are you watching? What are you texting? What are you down-loading?"
The assembly looked also to the past, recognizing the late Eunice M. Waller, a community activist and leader who died last year. Waller had established the King scholarship with a $100 donation following King's death in 1968.
"Ms. Waller could inspire anyone," said Melanie House, a Robert E. Fitch Senior High School student who received the first scholarship granted in Waller's memory. "She had an endless amount of devotion to her community."
Nathalia Rios and Ayeisha Washington, scholars from New London Science and Technology Magnet High School, recognized Ulysses B. Hammond, the outgoing president of the board of trustees, with the gift of a bowtie, his signature accessory.
The scholars also looked to the future when Courtney Sanders from St. Bernard High School asked eight area middle school students who had been invited to stand and be recognized.
Norwich Free Academy's Mackenzie Williams and her mother, Ramona Williams, sang a heartrending version of "His Eye is on the Sparrow" bringing the audience to its feet with the hymn about God's love for a mere sparrow.
Young women from the First Hispanic Baptist Church of New London Church danced joyfully, even though one of them was bound at the hands by chains. When the dancer finally freed herself from bondage and donned a pair of silky white wings, the assembly applauded.