STEPHEN HEATH GATES
Stephen Heath Gates, a warehouse manager who lives on the West Side, became an almost iconic figure in Allegany County in 2020. He was spotted walking alone along through Cumberland waving a Black Lives Matter flag. The unexpected sight of this lone toned young army of one became the topic of several social media posts by local community members, with some videos of Gates reaching more than 5,000 views.
“My initial plan was to walk 100 miles total, but I’ve already eclipsed that and am just going to keep going,” he says. His route on the West Side, marches on the bricks of Downtown, before crossing the railroad tracks and heading toward Rolling Mills. “I usually walk through the Fort Cumberland homes and then head back. Sometimes I kick it in front of the police station for a minute, and then I start towards home.”
Stephen is an unlikely and unusual protestor. In fact, he’s never attended a local Black Lives Matter protest and did not coordinate with others in this effort.
“I’m an introvert. I don’t drink or go to the bars. I stay at home and spend time with my family,” he says. “But with everything going on in the world, this is just such an important time to act.”
His daily picketing and personal demonstrations received mixed responses, though.
“People will yell at me from their cars, ‘go back to your town,’ but this is my town,” says Stephen. “I went to West Side Elementary, I went to Allegany. This is my home.”
He has also been the target of physical threats – both online and in person.
“But what people don’t realize is that I’m not part of the Black Lives Matter organization, or any organization for that matter,” says Stephen. “I’m not here for violence, either. I’m just here picketing for the existence of Black lives.”
Stephen says there are people within his own neighborhood in Allegany County – even in this era and time of supposed awareness and enlightenment – who call her and her children derogatory names – including the “N” word.
“I don’t want them to live in a world like this. I want them to know I was on the right side of history,” he says. “For me, this protest is 400 years in the making and the time is now. This hits close to home for me. We’ve seen police brutality against Black men in this community, but the only difference is that it’s never recorded. But as many problems as there are now, it can be better. We can overcome what divides us. We can have peace.”
In the days ahead and through the end of this month in which we observe and celebrate African American History month, watch for Allegany Magazine’s “30 Most Influential People of Color” (2022) to be introduced and presented. To see all of their portraits and editorial features in one beautiful collection, pick up the hard copy of the February 2022 edition of Allegany Magazine –available now.