The group of children leaned forward on the edges of their seats, waiting for the winners of the competition to be announced.

Moments before, the audience cheered and shouted in support as all contestants were honored with certificates of appreciation. Now, all watched in eager silence as the emcee read out the names of the top three winners of this year’s Black History Month Art Competition with the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Tar River Region and a local branch of U.S. Cellular.

“Before we announce the winners,” said Jennifer Hayes, director of operations for the club, “I wanted to say that I’m so proud of all of you who’ve competed. It takes a lot of courage to participate in something like this, and you all stepped out as a leader of the club and shown your best selves.”

In January, club members created original pieces of artwork in recognition of influential African-Americans, ranging from athletes to historical figures to celebrities. The top 10 finalists’ pieces were displayed in U.S. Cellular stores during the month of February, where the Rocky Mount community was able to vote for their favorites. Over 400 votes were recorded. This is the fifth year running for the competition.

Mayor Sandy Roberson attended the event, offering congratulations and high fives to the contestants.

“It was our honor to showcase the creative and beautiful artwork that these kids created in our stores,” said Jeremy Taylor, director of sales for U.S. Cellular in eastern North Carolina. “Highlighting influential African-American icons of the past and the present with these works of art from the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Tar River Region Lucy Ann Boddie Brewer Unit is one of our favorite ways to celebrate both Black History Month and the rich diversity of this country.”

In third place, Neveah Thompson received a $100 prize. Tai’Veon Battle won $150 for second place. In first, with a $250 prize, was Nia Ewuell.

For her piece, Ewuell chose to draw a picture of Nipsey Hu$$le, a rapper who was shot and killed last year outside of his storefront in Los Angeles. She said he inspired her both through his music and by his involvement in his community.

“When people start a business, they usually try to build it in a safe neighborhood, somewhere they can be confident they’ll do well,” Ewuell said. “Nipsey chose to build it in his home neighborhood, which was known for not being super safe. His business thrived, and everyone loved him for coming back to his neighborhood.”

She said his story reminds her not to forget where she is from.

“He’s a symbol for me,” she said. “He symbolizes power, wealth not coming from money but love and trust from the community. No matter where we are, we are the community — and it’s up to us to make it better.”

She said she appreciated having the mayor come to the event, as he is a well-known figure in the community.

“It was so nice of him to come and make us laugh and just talk to us,” Ewuell said. “It gives the feeling to these kids that the mayor came to see, like, you specifically. He was giving kids high fives and speaking to them before and after and even if that connection was only for a few minutes, it meant a lot just that he even came.”

Ewuell, 17, has been working on her art skills since fourth grade. While she plans primarily to study criminal justice at N.C. Central University, she hopes after that to study art at Durham School of the Arts. Currently still in high school, she often does portraits for her family and has had some of her art displayed in Station Square.

“I think this competition is important because it gives kids in the club a voice,” she said. “Even if they don’t think they can draw, they can still participate, and once they do they have to sign their name on their art. It gives them an opportunity to have that sense of importance, knowing that over 400 people saw their drawing. If someone famous walked into the store? They would’ve seen that kid’s drawing. These kids will remember the feeling that they matter forever.”