In February every year, Black History Month is celebrated across the nation. Or perhaps it would be more truthful to say it is celebrated in places across the nation. Every year I am amazed at the number of communities who opt out of this opportunity to learn some of their history, which has been neglected and forgotten because they feel it doesn’t concern them, it only matters to African Americans. The truth is that Black history is every American’s history, and the sooner we recognize that, the sooner we will begin to understand that African Americans have made significant contributions to the building of this nation and have every right to be here and to enjoy the same rights and privileges as other Americans.
What is now Black History Month was begun as Negro History Week by Carter G. Woodson, an African American educator and historian who died in 1950. Dr. Woodson, the author of many scholarly works, including The Mis-Education of the Negro published in 1933, realized that many Black students knew nothing of the accomplishments of their race and that because of that, it was impossible for them to imagine themselves as anything but servants and sharecroppers. He also realized that most white Americans also only saw Blacks in menial roles and had no clue about the many contributions of Blacks to this nation.
As one of the founders of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Dr. Woodson sought to remedy this ignorance by setting aside a week to highlight the achievements of Black Americans. He chose the week in February in which Abraham Lincoln’s birthday was celebrated. Through the years African American institutions, particularly schools and churches, used this week to teach their students and members about the contributions of Black Americans. Over time, Negro History Week expanded to Black History Month, as more and more stories needed to be told and as that original emphasis on Black Americans expanded to include our African history as well.
But the truth is that most Americans, sadly including many African Americans, cannot name a dozen Black history figures. They can’t get much beyond Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and maybe Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rosa Parks. There are thousands of heroic and amazing stories of Black Americans who changed the world, which most Americans still don’t know.
I recently saw an incredible new play by Tazewell Thompson. Called Constant Star, it is the story of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, one of my own spirit guides. A journalist born the year before the Civil War ended, Ida Wells was in many ways ahead of her time. While Black men such as Booker T. Washington basked in the glory of white America, as a woman she was deemed inferior in intellect and abilities. Even her white female counterparts such as Susan B. Anthony did not see her as their equals.
As the editor of the Memphis newspaper Free Speech, Ida Wells began to see that many of those Black men who were being lynched in the South after being accused of raping or even speaking to white women were innocent of these charges. Many were Black businessmen who threatened white businesses or were men who stood up for the rights of Blacks. Thousands were being lynched across the South, sometimes after being burned, tortured, castrated or dismembered. Often whole towns attended the lynchings, with parents bringing their children and picnic baskets (some say that is where the term picnic came from—picking a n- to lynch.)
Blacks were unable to go to local sheriffs and elected officials turned a blind eye. So, Ida Wells began a one-woman campaign to take the story of lynching to people across this nation and around the world. She wrote tirelessly about the victims and horrors of lynching. Because of her determined campaign, she was run out of Memphis and told that if she ever returned she would face lynching herself.
Ida Wells escaped to Chicago, where she continued her public speaking and writing campaigns against lynching, met and married her husband and had children. She refused to stop forcing this nation to confront these atrocities, working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and others until lynching was stopped. It was not until the 1930s that the large-scale lynching of Black men and women ended in this nation, but small numbers of lynchings occurred into the 1960s. Even today, we occasionally hear rumors of lynchings in small towns in the South.
In these days where talk of terrorism is often heard, it is important to remember our own American brand of terrorism. More than 3,000 died in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. But an estimated 4,742 Black men and women died by lynching between 1882 and 1968. This, too, is a part of our Black history and part of our American history as well. Lest we forget.
Bernice Powell Jackson is Executive Minister for Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ, www.ucc.org/jwm/. This article is from her weekly column, Witness for Justice, which addresses a broad spectrum of justice issues that impact our world.