February 5, 2006

Black history about more than just civil rights

February 5, 2006

As a child in grade school one of the annual events I looked forward to each February was Black History Week. Growing up in segregated schools in my southeastern Georgia community in the 1950s and 1960s, our textbooks made no mention of the contributions of African Americans to American society in this nation’s early years.

That’s why Carter G. Woodson, the so-called “father of black history,” in 1926 established the tradition of an annual weekly celebration. Woodson believed it would be impossible for people of his race to know where they were going without knowing where they have been.

Black History Week for me and my fellow schoolmates became a time of studying our heritage. We researched the contributions of African Americans who were inventors, scientists, writers, classical musicians, educators and business leaders, and learned about the dates of history-changing events that gave incremental steps to freedom to a people who had been enslaved and oppressed.

Tradition has it that Woodson chose the second week in February because it was the birth month of President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

According to information provided by the Carter G. Woodson Institute for Afro-American and African Studies based in Charlottsville, Va., Woodson was born in Virginia in 1875 to former slaves. He worked in coal mines as a young man. After graduating from high school, he went on to matriculate at several colleges and universities, ultimately earning a doctorate in history from Harvard University in 1912.

According to the institute’s Web site, Woodson took a teaching position at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and then launched what would become his passion for life — encouraging scholarly work in about African Americans.

I finished high school, Black History Week was expanded to a month of celebration.

A few weeks ago we had a meeting in the newsroom with several editors to develop ideas about what content the Montgomery Advertiser would provide readers during this month of celebration of black history. The conversation quickly turned to a discussion about civil rights and the heroes of that era, not surprising since we live in a community that contributed so much to civil rights through the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the civil rights career launch of Martin Luther King Jr.

But wait, I reminded the group. Black history is so much more than civil rights. Within a few seconds I found myself giving this group a lecture on my definition of black history, and the reason it is so important not just for African Americans, but all Americans to know about the contributions and heritage of black people in the United States.

In my early years, I looked forward to our week in February where we would study the poetry and music of the Harlem Renaissance, the name given to the period from the end of World War I through the Depression in the 1930s. This was a time that a group of talented African-Americans flourished with contributions of poetry, fiction, drama, essays and music.

In my early years we learned about the dialectic writing style of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, which I still read every February, and James Weldon Johnson’s poetic “God’s Trombones,” which I recited from memory as a child more than once in my church during Black History Week.

We learned about the contributions of many black firsts in our own communities and throughout the nation. Our teachers would bring in guest black speakers to talk about their own careers. These would be local doctors, business owners, university professors and classically trained musicians. We would listen to recorded versions of the old Negro spirituals and jazz pioneers. My personal music favorite was the work of black composer Thomas A. Dorsey, known as the father of gospel music. Dorsey’s compositions included “Precious Lord, take my hand,” which was recorded separately and famously by both Elvis Presley and Mahalia Jackson.

The debate about the need for a month set aside for the study of black history was elevated recently in a CBS “60 Minutes” interview with actor Morgan Freeman, who said “You’re going to relegate my history to a month?. . . I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history.”

A week, a month or no celebration at all — the debate over an official period of study may go on for a long time. But Freeman is absolutely right about the latter part of his statement: Black history is American history.

The Advertiser’s black history project for this month is “Reflections on black history.” We invited 28 people – one for each day – to come into our photo studio and sit for a video interview about their own black history stories. Please go to http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com to see the video interviews with local people from areas of medicine, business, education, clergy, athletics, politics, student leadership and community development.

Woodson said: “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”

This can be said of any group of Americans. It just so happens that this month is dedicated to the teachings and history of Black Americans.

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