As many of you know, February has long been designated as Black History month. According to Wikipedia, its purpose is to officially recognize AAs that have made significant contributions to Black history and culture. Currently, it has been recognized officially by the governments of the US, Ireland, Canada and the UK. In the US it is also known as African-American History month. The UK and Ireland observe it in October.
Although most people are familiar with the most famous AAs, such as Barack Obama, MLK and Muhammed Ali, among others, I believe scant few of you are familiar with the many others that have also made significant contributions. They also deserve to be recognized. I have profiled a few of these less widely known persons below.
The history of BHM can be traced to 1926. That year Black historian, Carter Woodson, and the Association for the Study of Negro Life announced that the second week of February would be known as “Negro History Week.” That particular week was a logical choice because it included the birthdates of both Abraham Lincoln (2/12) and Frederick Douglas (2/14). Many Black communities had been celebrating those two dates since the late 1800s.
In 1969 Black educators and a group called the Black United Students at Kent State University proposed expanding the week into a Black History Month. The idea caught on. By 1976 BHM was being observed all across the US at various universities and other centers of Black culture. That year, as part of the nation’s Bicentennial celebration, President Gerald Ford officially recognized BHM to “honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans.” The month of February was the obvious and logical choice.
There is no shortage of Blacks who have made and are making significant contributions to Black history and culture, too many to discuss them all in a brief blog. Therefore, as I mentioned above, I have chosen five persons who may not be generally known, but who nevertheless have made significant contributions to Black history and culture.
Dred Scott (c 1799-1858
Dred Scott, his wife and two children were enslaved AAs who sued unsuccessfully for their freedom based upon the fact that the family had lived in the State of Illinois and the territory of Wisconsin, where slavery was illegal, for four years. The laws in those jurisdictions stipulated that slaveholders would forfeit their rights to ownership the slave(s) had lived there for an “extended” period. The Scotts lost the case, but the decision was very controversial. It exacerbated racial tensions between the pro-slave and anti-slave states, and many historians believe it hastened the outbreak of the Civil War. The Scott family was manumitted by private agreement in 1857. The decision was later nullified by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. Dred Scott did not live to see that. He died of tuberculosis in 1858.
Rosa Louise McCauley Parks (1913-2005)
Rosa Parks was active in the civil rights movement for many years, but she is best remembered and honored for a single act of defiance. On December 1, 1955 Parks was employed as a seamstress in Montgomery, AL. She was riding the bus home sitting in the “colored” section, as required. The bus was full, and in accordance with the law the driver ordered her to give up her seat to a white woman. Parks was tired after a long day of work and refused. The incident sparked a bus boycott that lasted over a year and changed the course of history. The NAACP represented her in the courts. The result was a decision that rendered bus segregation unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. Parks was fired from her job, but she landed on her feet. She relocated to Detroit where she found similar employment, and later she worked for a Black congressman, John Conyers. In addition, she became active in the Black Power Movement and other Black causes.
Later in life, Congress honored her as “the first lady of civil rights” and the “mother of the freedom movement.” Upon her death she became the first woman to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda.
Frederick Douglas (c 1817-1895)
An escaped slave from Maryland Frederick Douglas was a staunch abolitionist, an orator, author, and statesman. He was so accomplished that he debunked all the stereotypes of the day vis a vis slaves, for example, that they lacked the intellectual capacity to function independently. On the other hand , he was such an accomplished author and orator that many abolitionists found it hard to believe that he had once been a slave. he was a staunch supporter of slaves’ rights and women’s suffrage. He became the first AA to be nominated for vp of the US (on the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872). He believed in maintaining a dialogue with those who held opposing views. His mantra was “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”
Harriet Tubman (c1822-1913)
Harriet Tubman was a staunch abolitionist and political activist. Born into slavery she escaped but that was not the end of her story. She devoted her life to helping others escape as well. Using the famed “Underground Railroad” she undertook over a dozen missions and rescued some 70 other slaves. Even one mission was highly dangerous. The risk of capture or death was very high. I can’t imagine the bravery it took to make as many as she did. During the Civil War she spied for the Union Army, and afterwards she became a staunch advocate for women’s suffrage. In 2016 the Secretary of the Treasury announced a plan to put her likeness on the front of the $20 bill and move Andrew Jackson’s likeness to the back. According to Wikipedia that hasn’t happened yet, but it is still in process. Harriet’s life was portrayed in a 2019 movie starring Cynthia Erivo. If you haven’t seen it I strongly recommend it.
George Washington Carver (c1864-1943)
George Washington Carver is generally considered to be the most renowned Black scientist of the 20th century. He was also a strong environmentalist and an accomplished inventor. He was a vigorous advocate of using crop rotation to counteract the depletion of the soil by continuously growing cotton. In this regard, he urged farmers to rotate other crops such as sweet potatoes and peanuts. His talents and accomplishments were recognized and commended even in the white community. For example, in 1941 Time magazine characterized him as a “Black Leonardo [da Vinci].”
Throughout history, there have been a plethora of Blacks that have risen above humble beginnings to make significant accomplishments. The foregoing are merely a few examples. In my opinion, they all exhibit one commonality. Rather than bemoan their fate of being born a slave or poor they set about doing something about it. They took advantage of the the great opportunities available in America to better oneself. I think this generation could learn a valuable lesson from them.