Celebrating Black History


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Another year has passed, and again, we have the opportunity to celebrate Black History Month with a goal of helping more people realize that anyone, no matter what color or ethnicity, can make important contributions to our society and should be recognized as a contributor. Seemingly U.S. history has dictated a void for the contributions of black Americans by either eliminating completely their achievements or crediting the deeds to persons who are or were not “persons of color.”

In 1926 Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced the second week of February to be Negro History Week. Fifty years later, in 1976, our federal government expanded the celebration to the entire month of February. It was President Gerald Ford who urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Since that time, every U.S. President has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month, thereby recognizing the central role of African Americans in the U.S. Consequently special efforts are made in many local schools, churches, charitable and/or social organizations, family homes, etc. to acquaint more people with notable names and historical events that have been overlooked or buried.

This is indeed an opportune time to share books, news articles, movies, etc to embrace some of that little known history. The following book is one worth including: “From Slavery To Public Service: Robert Smalls, 1839-1915,” by Okon Edet Uya, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971). In the book we find that the U.S. Army named its first ship after an African American in 2004. The man was Robert Smalls, the son of a slave mother and a white father in Beaufort, South Carolina. He was hired as a deckhand on the USS Planter, which served the Confederacy as an armed dispatch and transport boat. He later became the ship’s pilot. On May 13, 1862 Smalls underhandedly piloted the ship past five Confederate forts to the Union blockade and turned the ship over to the U.S. Navy. He began working for the Navy and became a hero in the North. He was sent to Washington, D.C. to persuade President Lincoln to permit black men to fight for the Union, and he was successful. Because of his efforts, five thousand African American men were allowed to enlist in the Union forces at Port Royal as the First South Carolina Volunteers.

Another little known fact concerns the Professional Golf Association. Although Tiger Woods holds iconic status with the association now, we find that there was another African American who did not fare as well. Dewey Brown became a member of the PGA in 1928. He had learned the game as a caddie and became a renowned club designer and teacher during the nineteen twenties and thirties. He even crafted a set of clubs for President Warren G. Harding; however, the PGA terminated Brown’s membership in 1934 because they found out that he was African American. During the six years his membership was honored, everyone assumed he was white because of his light complexion.

Other facts worth mentioning in the golfing world include: George Grant, a dentist from Boston, who designed the first golf tee registered by the U.S. Patent Office in 1899; John Shippen, who was the first black American to play in the U.S. Open in 1896; and Joseph Bartholomew, an architect who designed and built more than a half dozen golf courses in the New Orleans area. Because Bartholomew was black, he was not allowed to play on the courses he built. (Sources: Brown, Clifton “Members Only” The New York Times, 20 Dec. 1998; “Forbidden Fairways: African Americans and the Game of Golf,” by Calvin H. Sinnette Sleeping Bear Press, 1998).

In this space, some homage is being paid to a few little known or unknown accomplished African Americans. Hopefully, the information will simply be a source to whet the appetites of those of us with open and inquisitive minds. Using time during the month of February for us to become more informed about accomplishments of some African Americans and some of their contributions to our society will certainly be a positive step (in my opinion). Let us keep in mind the words found in 1st Corinthians of the Bible: “Every man’s work shall be made manifest.” As the adage goes, we must give credit where credit is due.

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