Black History is American History

February 26, 2021
President’s Message By Elizabeth Hughes

As Black History month draws to a close, I want to reflect on the 28 days, sometimes 29, that are earmarked to recognize the accomplishments of Black people in America. Carter G. Woodson is credited with the creation of what is now known as Black History Month. Woodson was the son of former slaves, who was generally self-taught until he finally had the opportunity to gain a formal education. He attended high school while working as a coal miner, eventually obtained a college degree, then ultimately earned a Ph.D. in history in 1912 from Harvard University. Dismayed at the exclusion and erasure of Black individuals from the narrative of our nation’s history, Woodson wrote extensively about the history of the contributions of Americans of African descent. In 1926, Dr. Woodson created Negro History Week, which eventually became Black History Month.

As Woodson knew then, Black people have always been at the forefront of the movement to achieve equal rights and equal justice. Out of this action, historic law and policy is often created. Some of our nation’s most important legislation and landmark decisions have been borne of such efforts and these steps forward have set the stage for progress for all Americans. Brown vs. Board of Education struck down school segregation as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and was just one case in the years long coordinated effort of the NAACP to dismantle the long history of segregation upheld in Plessy v. Ferguson. Led by Black attorney Charles Hamilton Houston and, later, Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP legal team created an overall legal strategy that began with cases challenging the segregation policies at graduate schools, including several law schools as early as the 1930s.

These efforts to dismantle the institution of segregation served as the catalyst for the Civil Rights movement. Black citizens and a significant number of their white allies risked their lives and their livelihoods to mobilize for change. We learn about Martin Luther King, Jr. in school but do you know about Fannie Lou Hamer? You might recognize John Lewis, but have you read about Bayard Rustin or Diane Nash? Many young Black students left the comfort and safety of college and a secure future for themselves and risked their lives to secure a future for generations of Americans to come, not just for Black Americans. Their actions and the actions of countless other Black people forced the hand of those in power and brought about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

To understand the significance of these landmark pieces of legislation and to realize that Black history is indeed American history, we first have to take the difficult step of recognizing and acknowledging the systems of oppression that led to exclusionary laws and policies which necessitated the fight for change. A perfect example of this is the GI Bill. The concept of the GI Bill was to provide veterans returning from World War II with opportunities for housing, job training and education. However, the implementation of the GI Bill was left to the states, where racist practices were rampant. Redlining, restrictive covenants and refusal of banks to provide loans to Blacks kept Black GIs from purchasing homes in many areas. Many institutions of higher learning refused to admit Black students and job training programs failed to provide Black GIs with equal access to the tools and facilities that would ensure them the necessary skills to obtain good paying jobs. As a very real example, I had four uncles, my mother’s brothers, who all fought in World War II at the same time. They were forced to ride in separate train cars from white soldiers, were housed in separate barracks and still bravely fought for this country, while my grandparents prayed for their safe return and that of their five nephews who were also serving their country at the same time. When these young men came home, there were significantly fewer options available to them than their white counterparts, yet they had all fought the same fight on the same foreign soil. These inequities have repercussions that last for generations.

So, as we contemplate the concept of Black History Month, we must be willing to acknowledge the continuing contributions of Black Americans, as well as the challenges and barriers that exist for people of color. If we are to effectively dismantle dangerous stereotypes and rewrite the false narrative that Black people did not contribute significantly to this great American experiment, we must educate ourselves every day and not just during the month of February. Some suggested reads include The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson and The Children by David Halberstam. I continue to educate myself on things that I was not taught in school and invite you to join me on this journey.