African American History Month

February is black history month in the United States. It is also an annual celebration in Canada, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. It started out as Negro History Week in 1926, when historian Carter G. Woodson announced the second week of February to be “Negro History Week.”The week was chosen because it coincided with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and Frederick Douglass on February 14. In 1970, the Black United Students at Kent State University organized the first Black History Month. President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month during the United States Bicentennial in 1976.

Most of the time, when we think of Black History, we think of the pioneering contributions of scientists and inventors such as George Washington Carver, whose experiments in crops led to alternatives to cotton as the principle crop of the southern states, or Percy Lavon Julian, a chemist who synthesized medicinal drugs from plants. Hundreds of engineers, physicists, chemists, mathematicians and inventors have contributed to the quality of life across the globe.

We also think of great civil rights leaders such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks. Their courage and vision have transformed our country and changed the way that we think about community. They pioneered the integration of schools and churches and military service and every aspect of life in our country.

We are quick to celebrate African American sports heroes. Serena Williams, Magic Johnson, Florence Griffith Joyner, Michael Jordan, George Foreman, and Jesse Owens all made history through their skill and strength.

Among the stories I most love to tell are those of children, who from a veery early age assumed risks, demonstrated courage and transformed the world. Ruby Bridges was only six years old when she became the first African American student to integrate an elementary school in the south. She was born the year that the Supreme Court made its landmark ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka Kansas. The law of the land was clear - racial segregation in public schools was illegal - but all across the south segregation continued. Her parents were torn about whether or not to allow her to attend the all-white William Frantz Elementary School, just a few blocks from their home. Her father feared for her safety. The school district dragged its feet, delaying admittance until November 14. Two other students decided not to leave their former schools, three others were sent to McDonough Elementary School. Ruby alone entered her school, escorted by federal marshals, through a gauntlet of scaring crowds and vicious slurs. Angry white parents pulled their children from the school. Only one teacher would accept her in a classroom and for an entire year Ruby was in a class of one. She ate lunch alone. She never missed a day of school that year. Her family paid a high price. Her father was fired from his job. Grocery stores refused to sell to her mother. Her grandparents were evicted from the farm where they had lived for 25 years.

Norman Rockwell’s iconic 1964 painting, “The Problem We All Live With” depicts Ruby, carrying her book escorted by four US marshals as they walk past a wall with “Nigger” painted on it on their way to her school.

I am touched by her story each time I hear it. Robert Coles’ biography, “the Story of Ruby Bridges,” is an important telling of that story. His landmark series, “Children of Crisis,” shows the depth of his interview process and the care with which he reached for accuracy in the telling of the story.

It touches me even deeper this particular year as my oldest grandson is a first grader this year. His seventh birthday was last week. The thought of one his age reshaping the history of our nation is overwhelming. Ruby Bridges did just that.

I learned something very important back in the 1970’s when I was living in Chicago. We attended a meeting of Operation Push, an organization founded by Jesse Jackson. It was very much like attending an old time revival. Jackson was an impressive speaker, who got the crowd to their feet and stirred emotions throughout the large auditorium where the meeting took place. He spoke in the style of a preacher, repeating and in full command of rhythm and pitch. He said that there is no such thing as black civil rights. There are only civil rights. African Americans weren’t seeking civil rights for themselves. They weren’t seeking to put their people ahead of others. They were seeking equal rights that benefit all people. My telling of the story does not do justice to Jesse’ preaching, but he got the point across to me.

African American History month is about telling the story of African Americans precisely because it is not someone else’s history. It is our history - the story of our people - the story of our country. Our lives have been improved by the contributions of scientists and engineers. Our health has been improved by doctors and researchers. Our spirits have been lifted by stunning athletes. Our freedoms have been expanded by civil rights leaders. This is a month of telling the stories of people who sacrificed and died for others. They lived for causes that were bigger than just promoting their own community - their own people. They lived for all of us. and we are all shaped by their contributions.

The current moment in American History seems to be one of division and partisanship. Perhaps more than ever before we are in desperate need of being reminded of leaders who didn’t exploit the moment for personal gain, who thought beyond the benefits to their own circle of friends and companions, who sought to improve the lot of all people everywhere.

The story of our nation is a story of many different histories. Native American history, immigrant history, the history of Eastern European slavery, the history of African-American slavery, the stories of Spanish-speaking people who moved north from Central America, and many, many more stories. Each contributes to the larger story of who we are.

It is a good month to learn more of our story.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!