Maisha Chargois takes on her mother’s mighty mantle

Woman standing in front of a quilt
At age 42, Maisha Zuri Chargois has become the face of the African American Heritage Foundation, which will celebrate two decades of legacy this weekend. Photo by Robin May

She’s not her mother. But she is definitely her mother’s child. At age 42, Maisha Zuri Chargois has become the face of the African American Heritage Foundation, which will celebrate two decades of legacy this weekend.

The non-profit organization — founded by her mother, the late community activist and radio personality Je’Nelle Chargois — will host its 10th awards gala on Saturday, followed by its 20th parade on Sunday.

As the foundation prepares to celebrate these landmark anniversaries, Maisha Chargois has come into her own. She has fully assumed — and accepted — her mother’s mighty mantle.

It was not easy at first, and she is the first to say, “I’ve always been in the background. I’m very comfortable in the background.”

Over the years, her biggest struggle has been stepping into the forefront, and not allowing negative feedback to detour her journey and commitment to fulfilling her mother’s dreams. It used to bother her, but that has changed: “I’ve gotten a lot better.”

Chargois does not consider herself as an introvert. She loves talking with individuals, but she is aware that she is not going to walk into a room full of people and command attention like her mother. Instead she would become a bit nervous.

And if she had to address an audience, she admits, “They’re not going to get this great Je’Nelle Chargois speech. I’m going to stick to what I wrote down.”

Her uncle George Jackie Alfred, chairman of the foundation’s board of directors, recalls those early days following his sister’s passing in 2018. “When Je’Nelle first died,” he says of his niece, “she leaned on us.”

With the gala and parade just a few months away at the time, they understood that Maisha was not up to taking over so soon, and family members and supporters stepped in on her behalf.

For Alfred, he has not stopped being there for her since. “My mission is always to make sure Maisha is OK because her mom is gone, to help her and guide her,” he says. “In the last year, she’s really stepped up.”

That is because she believes in the foundation’s purpose and the legacy her mother passed on to her and her brother Jared, who lives out of town but still serves as her confidante.

“We always knew who we were, me and my brother,” Chargois says. “We had a Black Jesus in our home. She taught us history, she taught us everything she knew.”

“If she learned something new,” she adds, “she shared it with us.”

Her mother also stressed the importance of their heritage and legacy, of understanding how hard people had worked for them, and the importance of respecting and appreciating that labor.

“Your grandparents worked hard for this land, so value it — don’t throw it away ” she remembers her mother telling them.

In addition to serving as the foundation’s board secretary, Maisha Chargois works today as an administrator for the Health Law Center. She is also founder of her own business, MK Marketing by Design.

Woman grinning and standing in front of quilt
The African American Heritage quilt is on display this year at the Lafayette City-Parish Hall.

But the foundation’s legacy remains front and center, and this weekend are its premiere events. First, the sold-out awards gala Saturday recognizes African American individuals who have contributed to the community and exemplified the CEEP (Community, Education, Economics, Politics) concept taught by the late Rev. A.J. McKnight, an African American priest who believed in self-empowerment and served as a mentor to many local Black leaders, including Maisha’s mother. He was also the founder of Southern Consumers Cooperative.

Gala 2024 honorees include Tina Shelvin Bingham, executive director of the McComb-Veazey Coterie and community development director of Lafayette Habitat for Humanity, for Community; Patricia Colbert Cormier, retired educator and former Lafayette NAACP president, for Education; KOK (Kitchen on Klinton), a popular restaurant founded by four fraternity brothers, for Economics; and Vincent Pierre, former state representative for District 44 and a member of Mayor-President Monique Blanco Boulet’s administration, for Politics.

Also being recognized is entrepreneur Corey Jack, owner and CEO of Jack & Associates LLC, with the Putting Our Children First Award for his Legacy Institute for Economic Attainment Program for the youth.

According to Chargois, not only does the event allow participants to dress up in ancestral African attire, and look and feel their best, it transcends generations. “It mixes the older crowd with the younger crowd,” she says, which enables both to mingle and move forward together.

Moreover, the gala celebration documents the heritage of the community. “I realize that even at my age, and as much as my mom taught me, and introduced me to, I still find new things [to learn],” she adds.

On Sunday, the foundation’s Black History Month festivities resume with the community heritage parade. It will begin at 2 p.m., proceeding from J. Wallace James Elementary School on Willow Street to the Super 1 Foods location near Evangeline Thruway. Serving as parade marshal will be John Pierre, chancellor of Southern University Law Center.

While the February activities are the year’s premiere events, the foundation also sponsors other invaluable programs, such as the Senior Appreciation Day and the Creole Rendezvous in Heymann Park. It is also the gatekeeper of the endearing Heritage Quilt, which weaves together the intrinsic past and present of the African American and Creole cultures. The popular quilt was on exhibit at the Hilliard Art Museum in 2023, and is currently being displayed this year at the Lafayette City-Parish Hall.

High on the foundation’s agenda is the development of an African American History Museum. And for the foundation, that means a state-of-the-art cultural center that engages the community, particularly young people.

“We have to meet the young people where they are,” Chargois says. “We have to find a way to engage them, and that’s technology.”

“Me and my mom would talk everyday,” she adds. “She would want the kids to be engaged.”

And those kids also include her two daughters, 12-year-old Joi and 13-year-old Jasmyn, and her 16-year-old nephew Jace.

To make her mother’s dream of a museum reality, Chargois has been visiting topnotch African American museums across the country, and receiving valuable information and input from their administrators. They are more than helpful to point the foundation in the right way, and encourage their local efforts to make the dream come into fruition.

“Hopefully, that museum will come to life,” Alfred says. “We’re working very hard on that, and she’s working very hard on that.”

When the community pauses annually for Mardi Gras festivities, Chargois takes advantage of the time off for out-of-state history and cultural field trips with her children. It has become a tradition. This year was the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Ala.

“I try to teach them about things they don’t learn in school,” she says.

Confident today in her own sense of purpose, Chargois looks forward to the future.

And that still includes fulfilling her mother’s dreams, and even embodying her mannerisms. After all, some may say her stride is similar to her mother’s.

She laughs and replies, “You ought to see my daughter: She walks just like her.”