Katherine Nichson was born in Harlem Hospital September 9, 1920. Anyone who has been in her presence knows she is a woman with tremendous spirit and determination. The Significant Elders of Harlem will host a 100 birthday celebration for the beloved “Spiritual Gangster,” at Harlem’s Kente Royal Gallery (2373 Adam Clayton Powell Blvd, at 139th Street; tel. 646 639 4979).
Nichson’s parents, James Carl Nelms and Ora Jane Dericott, were from Athens, Georgia.
When it comes to recalling times past she readily and meticulously shares them with fascinating recollections. As a child she attended New York City Public Schools PS 89, PS 81, PS 119 Junior High School 136 and Haaren High School. She was delighted to receive the award as the fastest Gregg shorthand writer at Haaren. Attending the High School prom and going to the Waldorf Astoria sparks joy and laughter as if it were just yesterday.
Nichson recounts that when her father died, her mother became a widow without benefit of an allotment. The family was dispossessed many times and their belongings were put out on the street. Despite the hardship she maintained perfect attendance at her schools.
As an adult she held a variety of jobs including with the National Youth Administration. Later she worked at a business that made adult games such as mahjong and backgammon. There she experienced racism from an employee who refused to take orders from her after which he was let go by the business owner.
A devoted member of the historic Mother A.M.E. Zion Church in Harlem, National Action Network and the Fred Samuels Democratic Club. Education, health, housing, and civil rights have always been a priority. A constant presence at Community Board meetings she stays informed about neighborhood matters and readily voices her opinions regarding the agenda.
Nichson enjoys being part of The Significant Elders, a Harlem-based group that engages in oral history and cultural arts programs for youth and adults of all ages. The Apollo Theater, National Dance Institute, Sugar Hill Children’s Museum, Harlem Children’s Zone and the Harriet Tubman School are venues where she has participated in activities.
When asked what issue raises the most concern for her at this time, she responded by saying, “maintaining health, being educated and voting.” Nichson adamantly expressed the view that, “What I see now is others demanding what we started. Infiltrating our organizations as if we need them and we don’t need them. Those who come and disrupt bring destruction which does not reflect who we are and our capabilities. We are a peaceful group.”
The valiant soldiers of Harlem’s 369th Regiment who went to France and were honored for their support during the war included her father. “That gives me a great sense of pride, unlike the remarks made by the man in the White House for now and hopefully not later.”
Through generations of family, her legacy of lived experiences is a valuable treasure for them as it is for all who have come to know her. Several events, some private and others public, will take place in Nichson’s honor. The Significant Elders will gather at the Kente Royal Gallery in Harlem where she will do what she has always done, speak her truth.
“I didn’t get old and start doing, I been doing,” Katherine Nichson affirms.