Altoona alumnus leads NAACP

The story behind the youngest branch president in PA.
Leading the way. Altoona alumnus Andraé Holsey shows off history of the NAACP. Holsey has been the branch president since 2021.
Leading the way. Altoona alumnus Andraé Holsey shows off history of the NAACP. Holsey has been the branch president since 2021.
Jaidyn Palladini

During the spring of 2021, Altoona alumnus Andraé Holsey became the newest branch President of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] after the passing of the previous President Don Witherspoon. 

At the age of 22, Holsey became the youngest branch President in Pennsylvania, and possibly the youngest ever in the state. 

As a senior in high school, Holsey had been in contact with Witherspoon before his passing.

“I was called by the previous president of the branch,” Holsey said. “My senior project was a forum on race at the early heights of the Black Lives Matter movement. I wanted to discuss what that theme meant, so we did a forum in front of 300 students from Mr. Lowe, Mr. Dodson and several other social studies teachers’ classes, and Don Witherspoon was one of my panelists. When he called me, he had said ‘I’m getting a little too old, and I’ve known you for some years now. Would you be interested in taking the helm?’ and unfortunately, he passed before an official election could be held, so we had to completely reform the branch in the spring of 2021.”

The NAACP is the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. 

“It is born out of several other civil rights movements that were happening at the time,” Holsey said. “The Booker T. Washington black workers movement, Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa Movement, called pan Africanism and the Equal Rights League. The Equal Rights League influenced people like W.E.B. DuBois all the way back in 1905, and they held what was called the Niagara Conference. It was two-thirds Jewish and white liberals from New York, and one-third African American scholars and workers. They decided to form the NAACP, and it got its charter in 1908. Here in Blair County, the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League was very strong, some of the only outspoken black activists in the state were here in Blair County, and they attracted people like Ralph Abernathy, Frederick Douglass and all kinds of other famous activists. So when the Klan became very powerful in 1922, the branch of the NAACP founded the entire state conference came to exist here that next year.” 

Members of the organization have missions set by the national and state organizations.

“I believe that we can prevent discrimination issues by strengthening the community,” Holsey said. “The more aware people are of each other, the less likely they are to group those around them into categories, and the less likely they are to discriminate against those individuals.”

According to Holsey, communication is a key role playing into the leadership of the NAACP. 

“In this job and any job where you’re directly in charge of people because I’m also a second lieutenant in the army, your job will be 98% managing personalities,” Holsey said. 

“If you cannot effectively communicate to people with all these different viewpoints, you will never be able to accomplish the mission of your organization with an association like this, that has two million activists nationwide.

— Andraé Holsey

“The intent, the mission, and the execution of that mission of the tasks in pursuit of education are first and foremost all the time,” Holsey said. “They must always be the center of the conversation. When we take our officer oath here, part of our oath and part of our founding documents say I will put all personal aside for the mission of this association. A lot of groups don’t have that mission. A lot of people are out to benefit themselves and that includes when they come to this office for help sometimes. So you just have to be able to clearly communicate and understand what’s happening in front of you with other individuals and figure out their intent.”

Holsey is a full-time production editor at a government watchdog organization assisting in creating a newspaper with experience gained from doing so at Altoona and Penn State University. 

“Everything that I learned about journalistic writing has come back into perspective working for the watchdog,” Holsey said. “The NAACP benefits from journalistic knowledge as well because we regularly publish memorandums, and so by working at the newspaper, I was able to understand how graphics fit on a page, what size should work to be, how do we explain a situation that we’ve gone through as if we’re looking at it from the outside, it has served me well. Two of the best classes I took at Penn State were digital arts, as applied to social sciences, and writing as applied to the social sciences, so how to create graphics to convince people of your points.”

From the beginning. Original photos of the House and Senate Bills are displayed inside of the NAACP. (Jaidyn Palladini)

Growing up in junior high and high school, Holsey was involved in 11 extracurricular activities by the time he was a senior. 

“The principal made fun of me ahead of graduation day for missing 28 days of senior year, all school-sanctioned events, but most notably, I was the drum major of the band. I actually took Mr. Detwiler’s daughter to Homecoming or Prom. One of the dances, but it was several years ago now. I was the drum major of the band, I was in student council, and I was on the mock trial team. In my sophomore year, I did speech league, and I went to Nationals for it. Had I not gone and practiced speaking in front of people, I would have never received most of the awards I did, including becoming a member of the NSHSS [National Society of High School Scholars]. People think it’s a scam because they don’t know that organization was founded by the Nobel family, and so those who apply and pay the membership fee to cross that threshold are eligible for all kinds of scholarships, and I won the Diversity Champion of the year in 2016, my senior year.”

Holsey believes the NAACP needs to modernize in Blair County. 

“We need to be able to get information out faster and in a more attention-grabbing way. We need to directly address injustice in government here,” Holsey said. “For a long time, government influences had already created a really fragile racial state here in Blair County. We just kind of cooperated with the government in the hopes that they would listen. But over the years, that has led to trends of injustice, and at this point, even though we are the only branch to pass its own law in Pennsylvania, if not the only branch in the entire association. We’re one of the strongest branches in Pennsylvania. We are still not in any litigation. We have never brought a lawsuit or criminal charges for corruption against someone, and I think it’s long overdue.” 

Aside from being possibly the youngest branch President in Pa., Holsey was in his senior year of college when his life changed. 

“It was a whirlwind,” Holsey said. “It was only four or five years before that I got a scholarship in high school from this organization. My mom at that point had been a member for 30 years at least, and my dad a member for decades, I’m not even sure how long. When I got elected, I found out that my dad’s middle school project or elementary school project at the time wanted black students to show the scholars as well as discuss what the desegregation of schools meant for America. In the ‘60s, that’s unheard of, especially in the DC area where white politicians were trying to uphold segregation.”

“It just kind of came full circle to me, but I’m proud to be here, and at the end of the day, I will do what I can to further this organization, but it takes the work of everybody.”

— Andraé Holsey

Being a political scientist, Holsey regularly goes around and consults others on campaigns, how they run their office, different laws and how law enforcement interacts with the public. 

“The most common thing that I am asked as head of the NAACP is how can I recruit minorities to my business or organization, and my most common response is, I could care less if you hire two black people tomorrow, or 100 black people tomorrow, because if none of them have a seat at the table of your board, then it means nothing. It’s not about diversity. It’s about inclusion. If you want a group of people to be part of your organization, you must make them feel welcome. To date, the city of Altoona has not done a good job of making people, especially those not familiar, feel welcome. If there’s any doubt about that, just scroll through the comments on WTAJ for some time, but we can fix that. Getting students off campus at Penn State, providing volunteer opportunities to all local high schools, and letting people know that they are heard. It doesn’t mean that they’re always right, but at a minimum, they can be heard.”

The fight ain’t finished. Memories of the last 100 years hang on the walls inside of the NAACP. (Jaidyn Palladini)

The purpose of the NAACP is security and equality for all people.

“You don’t have to have a badge, pin or a suit to be an officer or a member of the NAACP,” Holsey said. “You don’t even have to be brown. Even your readers in high school are eligible to be members of the NAACP, and we’ve been looking for quite some time now in starting a youth branch at Altoona High School, the first high school in the area, one of the first in Central PA to get a black history class. That’s huge, and about 30 to 40 years behind other schools in the state. I would encourage students to just go out and be involved and if it’s not the NAACP, just pursue your passions. There are organizations that disagree with what mine has to say, but I will continue to fight for their right to insult me, for their right to disagree because, at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.”

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All Mountain Echo Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *