Saturday, June 15Hampton Roads Weekly

A Lens On Black History

A Tribute to Black History Month

By Geoph Beard

Black History Month has a very rich tradition.  It is celebrated in America, the United Kingdom, Canada, and unofficially in Ireland.  But here in the United States we have a unique tradition that stands out from other nations.  In order to properly understand the true value of purposefully taking the time to celebrate, and how the “why” has evolved over the century, it’s important to first look at its roots. 

Black History month was created in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, an American Historian, author and journalist.

February was chosen, not because it’s the shortest month of the year, but because both Abraham Lincoln and Fredrick Douglas were born in February.  These two men were widely credited with leading the charge to end the institution of slavery in America.   At the time, African Americans were facing tremendous persecution, particularly in the South.  

Many moved to northern cities like Detroit and Chicago; however, the persecution was different, but in many cases just as severe.  

Carter Woodson’s justification for pushing what is historically known as “Negro History Week” was to prevent the eradication of the black race.  He is quoted saying, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated…The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the bible itself.  In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization.”  

Over the course of time the historical week was adopted by more and more states, and by 1976 it had evolved into what we now know as “Black History Month” and was widely observed and celebrated across the country.  

Additionally, Black History Month is set aside to honor the unique contributions of African Americans to our society and the broader global community: From science, to engineering, to business, technology, and mathematics, to the halls of universities and colleges, civil discourse in the political arena, to sports, the arts, space, our military, entertainment, faith communities as well as civil rights. 

Over the course of time many laws have been repealed and others created in order to legislate a more equal America.   However the systematic suppression of blacks has had lasting consequences and while laws can be changed by a majority vote and the stroke of a pen, people’s minds have taken more time.  

For example, in the 1950s the Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal schools were inherently unequal, and were therefore unconstitutional.  This ruling led to what is known in Virginia as “massive resistance” whereby the elected governor of Virginia chose to shut down many schools in Virginia, 6 of which are in the City of Norfolk, to keep them from being integrated by black Americans.  The group known as the “Norfolk 17” are the first blacks to attend “white” high schools in Norfolk.  Many of them are still alive today.  They still tell the story of how they were heckled, abused, thrown down stairs etc. by their white peers.  They bravely fought not only for themselves, but for generations to come, enduring the “torture” because they believed that if “we don’t do this now while we have the opportunity, it’ll never happen.”   

At the same time middle and elementary schools across the state were also being integrated.  The first African American to integrate Norfolk elementary schools currently teaches in one of them.  

As late as the 1960’s a Virginia couple was sentenced to a year in prison just for getting married, while the Supreme Court ruled their conviction unconstitutional, states like Georgia still had laws banning interracial marriage on the books as late as the year 2000.  

In 1967 just down the street a little girl was expelled from a local day care because it was discovered that she was bi-racial.  

These are just a small sampling of some of the challenges that still exist in our society to this day.  

We continue to celebrate Black history month not because we are still concerned that Black Americans are facing extermination, but because those stories that I just told illustrate that while we as a nation have come a long way, there is still ground to cover, and the consequences of our past will not be alleviated by default, but by design.  And by us as a society purposefully taking the time to study, observe and celebrate black history.

The church has played in the past and continues to play a role in speaking to these issues not simply from the stage (MLKJR and the civil rights movement was birthed out of the church), but through actions and building relationships and bridges that overcome the divides that so easily separate us, based upon race and culture.  We as the church are uniquely positioned to share the unbiased, pure gospel of Jesus Christ before whom we will all stand as equals.  This is why we celebrate Black History…