What do you know about black history to share with your colleagues and friends as our nation celebrates Black History Month? More importantly, what is your opinion about the value of black Americans’ contributions to the growth and development of the United States?
Unfortunately, some people still think that contributions of black Americans have little or no value; however, we will try to enlighten you with the truth based upon historical records.
Recently, we were invited by Jon Lodge, a teacher in the State College Area School District, to speak to students and faculty at State High on Martin Luther King Jr. Day about the significant contributions that people of color have made to improve and sustain the advancements of our nation.
Although there is so much information to cover, we think that you should know these nine things, starting with the abolition of slavery (that began in 1619) in the United States. Actually, before 1863, most people of color were in bondage as slaves until President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. It went into effect Jan. 1, 1863. Two years later, the Civil War was over and the nation began the healing and recovery process.
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On Jan. 31, 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. This landmark vote led to other significant legislation during the Reconstruction era, specifically the 14th and 15th amendments, respectively, provided citizenship and the right to vote to all persons regardless of race both born or naturalized in the United States.
The second thing you should know about black history occurred five years after the Civil War, in 1870, when the Republican Party elected seven people of color to serve in Congress, including one senator from Mississippi, Hiram Revels, who filled the unexpired term of Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederate States of America. There were six people of color in the House: three from South Carolina, Joseph H. Rainey, R. Brown Elliot and Robert C. De Large; one from Alabama, Benjamin S. Turner; one from Florida, Josiah T. Walls and one from Georgia, Jefferson Henry Long. These legislators were pioneers who struggled in the 40th and 41st Congress to bring equality for people of color in a racially divided nation.
The third thing you should know about black history concerns a young man, Henry O. Flipper, born into slavery, matriculated (1873) and graduated (50th in his class of 76 cadets) from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1877. The magnitude of Flipper’s accomplishment is extraordinary because it was illegal for a person of color to be educated while in bondage. Flipper persevered through tremendous odds to be educated and qualify for entry into West Point; he not only graduated but became the first person of color to be a commissioned officer in the Army, serving with the 10th Cavalry Regiment, aka the Buffalo Soldiers.
The fourth and fifth things that you should know about black history relate to the field of medicine. In 1893, Daniel Hale Williams, from Hollidaysburg, became the first medical doctor to perform open-heart surgery successfully in the United States. It was declared a success because his patient lived 20 years after the surgery. You should also know that the first blood bank in America, under the auspices of the American Red Cross, was established by medical doctor Charles Drew, which was based upon his research and doctoral thesis, “Banked Blood,” according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Drew’s blood preservation research saved countless lives of soldiers from Great Britain and the United States during World War II and earned him the reputation as “father of the blood bank.”
The sixth and seventh things you should know about black history concern law and literature as contributed by Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes, respectively.
In 1954, Marshall was the lead attorney for the NAACP who successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that separate but equal public schools were unconstitutional in the landmark case, Brown v. the Board of Education, in Topeka, Kan. In 1967, Marshall was nominated as the first person of color to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Lyndon B. Johnson. On January 24, 1993, Justice Marshall passed away knowing that Clarence Thomas was his replacement on the Supreme Court, appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1991.
In terms of literary contributions, Langston Hughes was a distinguished poet, novelist and writer during the Harlem Renaissance (from 1918 to 1935) who left a legacy of episodic poetry for America to embrace. For example, Hughes’ poem about a “Dream Deferred” is just as relevant today as it was when he published it (1951) more than 60 years ago.
The question is not rhetorical and should be considered a discussion item with our children and their children as well, what happens to a dream deferred?
The eighth thing you should know about black history relates to why we acknowledge it in the United States. In 1926, Carter G. Woodson, historian, author, journalist and the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, started Negro History Week because the accomplishments and contributions of persons of color were omitted from the history books in public schools and institutions of higher learning throughout the United States. However, over the years, Negro History Week emerged into Black History Month.
The last thing you should know about black history concerns central Pennsylvania. The Forum on Black Affairs began more than 40 years ago as a group of university and community leaders in the Penn State community to advocate for positive change on behalf of people of color.
Hopefully, you now have a little more knowledge to generate discussions with your family, friends and colleagues. February is a good time to share your knowledge about black history as an inclusive part of American history.