Black history is American history

February 25, 2022

President’s Message By Joseph R. Williams

Does the title of this month’s President’s Message look familiar? That’s because ACBA Past President Elizabeth L. Hughes used this exact same title in the February 26, 2021 edition of the Lawyers Journal. I thought that it was worth repeating.

Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by African-Americans and a time for recognizing their central role in U.S. history. Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month. Other countries around the world, including Canada and the United Kingdom, also devote a month to celebrating Black history.

On February 1, 2021, the other President Joe issued a statement just 11 days after taking office which included the following excerpt: “We have never fully lived up to the founding principles of this nation that all people are created equal and have the right to be treated equally throughout their lives. We know that it is long past time to confront deep racial inequities and the systemic racism that continue to plague our nation.”

One effect of racism is that not enough of us have been taught about Black excellence. This is why we need Black History Month. However, when we celebrate Black history there is a risk of sending a message that what we are celebrating is not also American history. This simply means that we need to value and talk more about Black history all the time; because, as Past President Hughes said, Black history is American history.

To fully appreciate Black history and American history alike, we must confront uncomfortable realities from that history. For example, when we celebrate a “first” we must identify why someone is a “first.” President Obama and Vice President Harris were not “firsts” because Black people were somehow behind. They were firsts because racism precluded other qualified Black Americans from being elected to our highest offices.

Uncomfortable realities about Black history can also be observed locally. In the post-Civil War 1880s, few destinations held as much promise as the then-booming city of Pittsburgh. Many Black Americans flocked to Pittsburgh for jobs in the steel and railroad industries. The Hill District neighborhood, close to Downtown, became home for many. By the 1930s, the Hill District was nationally recognized as a city within a city, known for thriving businesses, a vibrant jazz scene, and Greenlee Field, the first Black-owned and Black-built baseball stadium in America. However, in the decades that followed the area fell victim to a deteriorating infrastructure and many of the buildings went into disrepair. In 1956, the city chose the Lower Hill District as the site of the new Civic Arena, displacing over 8,000 residents over a period of five years. This caused the downfall of much of the area’s vibrancy, and its effects are still seen in the Hill District today.

Black history is ongoing; it is still being made today. We should recognize society’s hand in the obstruction of the success of the Black community, while still celebrating the tremendous milestones achieved by many Black Americans. In our local government, we have plenty of reasons to celebrate. On January 3, 2022, Hon. Edward C. Gainey was inaugurated as the first Black mayor of the City of Pittsburgh. Our most recent election also resulted in four Black Judges – Hon. Nicola Henry-Taylor, Hon. Elliot Howsie, Hon. Tiffany Sizemore and Hon. Wrenna Watson – being elected to the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County and receiving the four highest number of votes for all candidates in the general election.

The celebration should not only occur when a Black person is a “first” to achieve an elected office. Not every Black person who is excelling is famous or running for public office. They are local business owners, doctors, social workers, teachers, accountants and real estate agents. They are local students winning the science fair, playing the solo in the band concert and kicking the winning field goal.

Change is happening before our eyes, but it will only continue if all of us work to make it happen. Your contribution can even be a small one. Order lunch from a Black owned restaurant. Buy the umbrella you will need this spring from a Black owned business. Remind others that the success of one of us is the success of all of us.