A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots. MARCUS GARVEY
If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. MICHAEL CRICHTON
If history and science have taught us anything, it is that passion and desire are not the same as truth. E. O. WILSON
A generation which ignores history has no past — and no future.
“We should not emphasize “Negro History,” but “The Negro IN history.”
CARTER WOODSON, historian
“The incredible thing about history is that there is always more to discover; it is never “finished.” ANONYMOUS
As readers of these missives have no doubt noticed, a lot of the newsletters I send start with quotes. A couple of people have asked me over the years why I do that, and the reasons haven’t really changed. Life, to me, is mostly about going through transitions, change, discovery and re-discovery, finding purpose, and making meaning out of it all. The quotes that I choose are ones that speak to my own journey through all of this over the years, and they convey things that have become important to me in my attempts to navigate the world. Reflecting on quotes reminds me that I am not the first person to go through this process and will not be the last. It also reminds me that I can learn from the experiences of others-I am not the font of all knowledge, and my experience is far from the only valid one. As I have spent more than half my life as a history teache, and as tomorrow is the official start of something called Black History Month, I thought it might be good to reflect on what history has meant to me throughout my life-what it is, what it can be, and what it can do. These quotes guide me in doing that.
I have been a history freak since, well, forever. I can recall being a young child, looking through the World Book Encyclopedias that my mother sold, and being fascinated by people, times and events that had happened a long time ago. In elementary school and junior high school. I memorized a lot of names and dates, was captured and intrigued by timelines, and fell in love with the 300 and 900 stacks in the Philadelphia Free Library--the stacks that by Dewey’s system contained most of the historical material. I knew that if I was interested in subject “A” and the book I was looking for wasn’t in, I could look to the right or to the left of where that book should be and there would probably be something as interesting as what I had been looking for originally. I grew up during the 1950’s and 1960’s, and there was an explosion of new ways of looking at history happening then. New sources were being found and explored, new interpretations of time periods and events abounded, new theories about history were being put forth, and many different people’s stories were now being included. The library was an important gateway to all of that for me; I was able to find out things I had little knowledge about due to the wealth of information in those stacks. What I found in one book led me to still others, and the more I found, the more I wanted to find out. For an insatiably curious kid, it was heaven. To me, libraries are sacred ground.
All this fed my curiosity, made me hungry for knowledge, and turned me into someone who looked for connections between ideas, times and people. When my wife and I would travel somewhere new, I would have read or seen something about the history of the place by the time we got there. And wherever we traveled somewhere for more than a day or two, we would spend part of that time at an historical site, a walking tour and/or in a library. My wife would often say, “You have never met an historical marker you didn’t love!” And she was right.
That interest continues to this very day. The ideas about history that I encountered in my official education were initially cursory and spotty. We were taught the names of famous people, largely white, and we looked at events through the lens of great accomplishments; things that made the United States great. But from all the reading I was doing before I even started school, I knew I wanted more. We had the wonders of Negro History Week when I was growing up-a week during which special emphasis was given to studying the stories and history of Negro people, as we were then called. My church and my school provided some books, told us some stories, and put on some plays that got me exposed and interested in the lives of men and women who were generally not in the school's history books. Part of the beauty and power of that week for me was that it had been started by us-we were starting to tell our own stories publicly and officially. Negro History Week was started by a Black historian in the mid-1920’s. Carter G. Woodson, the son of slaves, had received a doctorate from Harvard in 1912, and he realized that in most history books Blacks were either depicted in stereotypical and inaccurate ways or not mentioned at all. To counter this, he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life in 1915, and he started publishing The Journal of Negro History. The Journal published research articles by and about Blacks and was distributed to schools and people who educated Blacks. Interest in the publication and topic soared, and it became an important repository for historical research about Blacks. In 1926 the Association established Negro History Week, a time for black churches, students, communities, colleges, and more to focus on the history of Blacks in this country and the world. The Civil Rights Movement and the rise of Black Power in the 1960’s and 1970’s gave it a new emphasis, and it became more of a part in many schools’ curricula. By then it had been renamed and had expanded to Black History Month, and it was much more visible. President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976 to coordinate with the bicentennial of the country, and it has been officially recognized by most schools and communities since then. Newspapers, TV networks, and radio stations do special programming. Cities and towns host special breakfasts, award ceremonies, essay contests, and more. It is pretty much in the mainstream now, and in many ways that is good. But there is still more to do
One of the things this month can do is allow us to pause, slow down and take a deeper look at a lot of our assumptions and collective knowledge about who we are as a country. As Carter Woodson said above, we need to focus not on a separate sense of the history of any one people in the United States, but on how each and every one of them are IN our history. How each one is a part of all of the things that have made us who we are as a nation and will continue to do so. If the month can be seen as an opportunity to expand our knowledge and better understand where we as an entire culture have been, the month can give us ways to deepen our understandings about this place and important ways the past influences the present. We know some things about slavery, for example, but for most of us slavery was something that happened on plantations and in the South-it was about picking things and working in the fields and the “Big House.” The reality, though, is far more complicated than that. There was slavery in each and every colony before the American Revolution, many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and The Constitution held slaves, and slavery was legal in each and every state for years after the Revolution. And slaves did all sorts of work besdies field work, from making pots, to unloading the ships in Philadelphia's harbor, to doing much of the iron and brick work in Charleston, South Carolina. And all the activities and structures needed and developed to support slavery were at the very heart of US economic growth throughout the 18th and 19th century-domestic and international shipping, our systems of banking, the stock market, trade, and more. The New York Historical Society had a monumental exhibit in 2005 and 2006 on Slavery in New York City, and the history it revealed totally changed many people’s ideas about what the 19th century was about and the role of the Big Apple during that time. People had not realized that New York had been a slave state and that its’ role in banking, shipping, and trade made it the center of the entire United States slave system. While the whole online exhibit is no longer there, it is still a worthwhile site to visit. (http://www.slaveryinnewyork. org/ ) Likewise, there was a website developed in 2003 by historian Douglas Harper called, “Slavery in the North” that examines how each colony and state north of the Mason-Dixon line carried out their involvement with the “peculiar institution.” (http://slavenorth.com/index. html Looking at these sites and other books, films, etc deepened my knowledge and unearthed moving and amazing stories about which I had known little. It also helped me learn new things about many other things beyond slavery. That is one of the wonderful things about history-there is usually so much more beneath the surface of any one thing than we see at first glance. There is always much to be uncovered and brought forth, and I love that digging. As stated above, history is never truly “finished.”
I hope this Black History Month finds you looking in new places for new things and discovering and uncovering new facts and new people. Libraries, the web, streaming services-there is no reason to not be learning something new. There is a universe of largely unknown, people whose lives have amazing stories to tell and whose accomplishments are astonishing. If I may jump start that for you, let me toss out some names with whom you may not be familiar: Benjamin Banneker, Bass Reaves, Miriam Benjamin, Daniel Hale Williams, Garret Morgan, Lewis Latimer, Dr. Charles Drew, and Valerie Thomas. If you are curious, look them up and see who they were and what they did, and how they are connected to so many things we take for granted today. Dig, uncover, and enjoy!
Some Websites to Spark Curiosity:
List of African-American Centered Museums Nationwide: