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Diversity and Empowerment: Historic Riverlands represented in women’s leadership summit

RESERVE — Sylvia Perrilloux Clayton experienced segregation and integration firsthand, along with the after-effects that have permeated through the decades. Clayton, who presently works as a hostess and songstress at Historic Riverlands Christian Center in Reserve, was the first black teller hired at a local bank in the 1960s.

She grew up attending school at Our Lady of Grace, built specifically for black Catholics.

Her niece, Rose Lynn Perrilloux, was one of four women chosen among 800 applicants to be the face of Pantene’s “My Black is Beautiful” campaign in 2008.

While society has come a long way, Perrilloux said minority businesswomen still face the challenge of networking in a world that perceives a woman’s skin color before her character.

“Generally speaking, things have changed for the better, but whenever we talk as family and friends, we do kind of see there are similarities and some things that haven’t changed,” Perrilloux said.

Clayton and Perrilloux are headed to New Jersey this week to share their struggles and triumphs with a diverse group of movers and shakers at the annual Metro Women’s Leadership Summit.

The duo will close out the conference Friday evening in a breakout session titled, “If you want to go fast… go it alone. If you want to go far…go it together!”

Also featured at the conference is Cory Cart of HUB Integrated Communication Agency, who connected Clayton and Perrilloux to the summit after working with them to produce a video highlighting Historic Riverlands.

Business connections grew into a personal bond as Cart found inspiration in their ability to rise above negative circumstances.

The full-day Metro Women’s Leadership Summit, featuring Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz as guest speaker, celebrates diversity and empowerment in the challenges women face daily.

Program producer Joanne Vero hopes stories such as those from Perrilloux and Clayton will highlight real solutions to these challenges in the quest for personal and professional success.

Perrilloux is headed to the conference in good spirits, eager to talk about her experiences as administrative assistant for Historic Riverlands.

In dealing with adversity, Perrilloux aims to keep a positive worldview.

“It’s not as overt, like blatant racism, but there are still remnants of people’s own perceptions of who they think you are before they know who you are,” Perrilloux said. “We still try to love everyone, treat everyone the same way, and don’t allow their negativity to affect how we treat them.”

At the conference, Perrilloux will share the importance of good business relationships, which have connected Historic Riverlands to tourism stakeholders across the world.

The historic site was recently featured on a New Orleans Plantation Country “River Reel” video series. The short documentary opened with Clayton’s soulful singing, which she shares with tour groups weekly at Historic Riverlands.

Her voice will reach a new audience Friday when she closes out the Metro Women’s Leadership Summit in song.

Clayton has faced her share of adversity, especially when working as a bank teller in Reserve.

“When I started in the bank, it was two other white girls and me in the middle,” Clayton said. “Sometimes I experienced people coming in and not wanting me to wait on them. They would rather wait for one of the white girls, or when they would ask a question and I would answer it, they wouldn’t take my word.”

Part of her job at Riverlands is to tell the African American experience post slavery, including the cultural and musical contributions that came amid segregation and integration.

She is proud to represent the original Our Lady of Grace Church that now hosts Historic Riverlands tours. The four walls have stood with her family through all of life’s milestones, including christenings, baptisms, marriages and funerals.