Author photo

By Mel White
contributing writer 

Black History Month

On the Bright Side


February 19, 2022

Mel White.

February is designated Black History Month (BHM), a time to celebrate "the wide breadth of history, contributions, and achievements of African Americans" (Bernard Grant, Ph.D.). "Included in Black History are stories of activism against slavery and continuing racism, as well as a long record of Black life in America that spans over [400] years."

Black History in our country dates back to the 1500s when the first slaves were brought to our shores, and of course continues today. So much of that part of history has been covered up, or lost, or forgotten, or ignored for so long. I for one am glad that is no longer the case.

I admit, while I have had friends who were people of color all my adult life, I didn't even know there was such a thing as Black History Month until the early 80s when I also learned about March being Women's History Month. It gets a lot more publicity these days, which I think is indeed a good thing.

Founded in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson (a Harvard Ph.D./historian), Negro History Week was designed to highlight the contributions of Black Americans to American society. It was purposefully set in February because Woodson wanted to honor both Frederick Douglass (a former slave and abolition activist) and Abraham Lincoln (the president who signed the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves), both of whom were born in February.

Civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X and others popularized the movement considerably in the 60s, and the week-long celebration was expanded and designated Black History Month by President Gerald Ford in 1976.

I like learning about Black History and the many, many people of color who made great contributions to the life I live now – people and efforts and inventions I never learned about in school. I especially like to learn about everyday people whose efforts have been part of making the promise of America closer to being true for all Americans.

For instance, I knew about Rosa Parks, but thanks to BHM I have also learned about Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl who chose not to sit at the back of the bus before Parks became famous for doing so. Claiming her constitutional rights to sit in the middle of the bus, the teenager argued with the bus driver and was then arrested. I wonder how many other brave people, younger or older, have demanded their rights and paid a price until the world sat up and noticed and tried to make things a little more equitable. And make information about it all more available.

I've also learned about Annie Lee Cooper, a Selma, Alabama, resident and activist who simply tried to vote in 1965. You may not be familiar with her name but if you saw the movie "Selma," you'll remember her character played by Oprah Winfrey. Cooper didn't give up trying to vote no matter how many obstacles were put in her way (she even reportedly punched the sheriff in the face) and thus played a great part in restoring and protecting voting rights for people of color in Alabama.

Then there is Alice Coachman who, as a kid in Albany, Georgia, loved to run on the dirt roads around town and jump over makeshift hurdles. In 1948 she became the first African American woman from any country to win an Olympic Gold Medal at the games in London; in fact she set a high jump record, leaping over 5 feet, 6 and 1/8 inches.

Bessie Coleman is a name I was familiar with, mostly because I am a fan of Amelia Earhart. But it turns out Coleman was more than just another female pilot – she was the first licensed Black pilot in the world (getting her training in France in 1919) and a true aviation pioneer, paving the way for fliers like the Tuskegee Airmen and the Flying Hobos.

(Just FYI, the Flying Hobos – Lamar K. Cheston, Jeantique Oriol, and Kevin Mambo – were the first African Americans to fly across the United States. The Tuskegee Airmen, founded in 1941, were a group of African American pilots and crew who fought in World War II.)

So many stories, so little time. Which can be said of so many under-examined and under-valued groups of people. Maybe one day we won't need a month to remind us that there are so many stories out there that need to be heard. But until that day, I'll celebrate Black History Month every February and learn as much as I can about those who have gone before us.


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