NAUGATUCK — Sylvia Mashinini Morse stood before more than 100 students at Naugatuck High School Tuesday morning and encouraged them to always follow their dreams.
“This is what I’ve learned: positive thinking will always produce positive things,” Morse said. “You never ever give up.”
Morse didn’t give up.
Morse grew up under apartheid in South Africa. She was an elementary school student in 1976 when the Soweto youth uprising occurred, which lead to the killings of hundreds of black children.
Many of the victims were high school students who were gunned down by police and military forces while they protested the government’s decision to make them learn in Afrikaans, the language of the white minority that ruled South Africa.
Seeing soldiers in the streets of South Africa was a normal sight for Morse.
“I remember running all the time from school to go home because there would be tear gas. There would be police patrolling through the streets all the time. Not even police, soldiers,” Morse said. “I know some of my friends died because sometimes you’d be running and there’d be a gunshot.”
But, Morse didn’t give up. She pursued her dreams of becoming an actress and got her first opportunity to get on stage in middle school. She continued to follow her dream of acting and became an accomplished actress, including acting in the South African movie Ipi-Tombi, the South African television series Ifa Lakwa Mthethwa and on an episode of the BBC series Soldier Soldier.
Along the way she broke down racial barriers and became the first black air hostesses in South Africa. She flew with Bop Airways for four years, ultimately becoming the chief cabin attendant.
Morse ultimately met her husband on a plane while working as a flight attendant. After moving to the United States in 1998, Morse, her husband and their two children now call Naugatuck home.
Morse graduated from Naugatuck Valley Community College with an associate degree in theater in 2012. She most recently has been working on her screenplay, Haibo, which has garnered interest from director Tyler Perry.
While it was Morse who left an impression on the students, everyone gathered at the high school to honor her. Morse was recognized as Naugatuck’s African-American Mayor for the Day.
“Many people of all ethnic backgrounds tell their struggles, tell their life through the beauty of art, through music and theater. She is a playwright, she is an author, and she continues in that pursuit. That’s a special trait, when someone has those artistic abilities and shares those with others,” Naugatuck Mayor Robert Mezzo said.
Mezzo said Morse’s story is part of what makes Naugatuck and America the place it is.
“We are here today to celebrate the African-American mayor for the day. But really these celebrations are a celebration of our country. We are a country that comes from different places,” Mezzo said.