Black history is American history

April 7, 2023

President’s Message By Erica L. Laughlin

I know what you’re thinking. February was Black History Month. I didn’t miss the memo. Black history is American history and the discussion shouldn’t be limited to just one month. Beyond perhaps noticing the Black history display in Target last month, did you pay attention? Did you attend the Homer S. Brown Division’s Black History Month Celebration? Did you take the time to ask any questions or consider what the significance of Black history is for our Black friends and colleagues or what its significance should be to you?

I’m a white girl from the suburbs of Pittsburgh. I could count how many Black families attended my high school. I’d like to think that since then I’ve grown more educated about diversity and Black history, but who am I to write an article about it? So when I started preparing for this article I did what we lawyers do – I researched. I can tell you that Black History Month has its origin dating back to 1925 when the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History conceived of and announced Negro History Week, which was celebrated for the first time in February of 1926. I could tell you that it took 50 years for Negro History Week to be expanded to a month-long celebration in 1976 at the urging of President Gerald R. Ford who at that time told Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” But when it came time to write this article beyond reciting facts…I struggled and candidly was nervous. I wanted this article to be meaningful. 

So I turned to my friends at the ACBA who afforded me the opportunity to sit in a room and ask them some very personal questions. Tell me about Black History Month, why is it significant to you, why should it be significant to our members and what more can we do in our Association and communities to expand the celebration of Black history beyond February. The discussion was raw, candid and even at times emotional. I repeated several times that I wished it had been a panel discussion more of our members could have heard.  

What I learned from ACBA Secretary Regina Wilson, ACBA Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Kellie Ware, ACBA Homer S. Brown Division Chair Jesse Exilus and Past-Chair Morgan Moody I couldn’t learn from Wikipedia or Google. They stressed as an initial matter the recognition that Black history is American history.

Black people have been part of every war, women’s movement, and significant development in our country’s history. Too often we romanticize white heroes who stood up for Black rights, and while there certainly are white people throughout history who stood up for the rights of Black men and women in a powerful and impactful way, we need to be mindful not to overlook the Black heroes who collaborated with and challenged others and were instrumental in attaining the freedoms afforded to Black men and women today. Thinking beyond fundamental rights and liberties, you may not even realize that Black inventors impact your daily life from developing traffic lights to peanut products to super soakers among countless others. We need to elevate Black business and educate ourselves more on the hidden Black figures who helped shape American history.

Why should Black history be important to all of us? As Kellie Ware eloquently put it, “If you don’t know our history you won’t understand why we have the challenges with race and diversity that exist today. Your diversity, equity and inclusion efforts may be well intentioned, but are apt to fail without an appreciation of Black history. Black History Month is a floor not a ceiling, but we have to start somewhere.”

Jesse Exilus had a perspective I hadn’t considered. He is a first-generation immigrant from Haiti. “Without knowing African-American history, it can be easy for Black immigrants to bypass the trauma that descendants of slaves in America have and continue to endure. Understanding how African- American history impacts people of color in this moment helps create a path to building an equitable future that works for everyone,” he said.

We have an obligation to educate not only ourselves and our children, but those who seek refuge in our country of how slavery impacted and shaped American history.

History may not always be comfortable, but you can’t understand if you don’t talk about it explained Regina Wilson. Morgan nodding her head indicated you may not understand the trauma of our people, but you can empathize. “You just need to care.”

They suggested it was enough to simply be curious and open to learning more. They encourage everyone to continue to ask questions. Even tough uncomfortable ones. Regina recommends the book, How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, by Clint Smith, to help understand slavery, its imprint on American history and some of the essential yet often unknown or overlooked stories.

Looking back on our discussion, it struck me that Regina, Kellie, Jesse and Morgan all thanked me for asking questions when clearly they are the ones who deserve the thanks for affording me the opportunity to hear their perspectives. The discussion profoundly moved me. Each one of us can ask questions and educate ourselves. We can be curious. We can care. We can become allies. As we start talking about the next cohort of the ACBA ALLY Initiative certification program I encourage you to speak with the leadership in your firms and legal departments and consider participating in this program.

For more information visit ACBA.org/allyinitiative. Certainly we have made great strides in Allegheny County toward increasing diversity among our bench and bar, and bringing relevant related programing and opportunities to our members – but the commitment to allyship and DEI is an ongoing process, and it’s something that’s earned. Understanding Black history is a powerful first step. For more information on Black History Month visit blackhistorymonth.gov. For more ways to be mindful of Black history, becoming an ally and increasing or implementing DEI efforts in your firm or legal department contact Kellie Ware, at kware@acba.org.

Black history is American history. Let’s keep the discussion going.