By CHRISTOPHER BREEN
Black History Month marks a reflection on the rich history and culture of the African-American people.
It began in 1926 as Negro History Week by Carter G. Woodson. It was the second week of February because it coincided with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and Frederick Douglas (Feb. 14).
“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,” Woodson said. “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.”President Lincoln was famous for the Emancipation Proclamation and Douglas was quoted as saying, “There is no negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own constitution.”The idea to expand from a week to a month was proposed in 1969 at Kent State University by the leaders of the Black United Students.
The expansion was not recognized until 1976 when it was made official by the United States government during the United States Bicentennial.
President Gerald Ford urged the American people to “seize the opportunity to honour the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavour throughout history.”
In Canada, the month was not officially recognized until 1995 when Jean Augustine, a Canadian politician, moved in the House of Commons to officially recognize it and to honour black Canadians.
However, not everyone saw this as positive.
“I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history,” said actor Morgan Freedman, a critic of BHM during an interview on the American CBS network show 60 Minutes.
From the pages of history there are many prominent figureheads who took African-American history and culture from the freedoms in Africa, across the oceans in the bonds of slavery, along the tracks of the Underground Railroad to freedom again and, finally, the rise to equality.
“I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say; I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
Harriet Tubman was a ‘conductor’ on the Underground Railroad (UGRR). Not an actual railroad, it was made up of secret routes, safe houses, and people, both black and white, who led many out of the United States to one goal – freedom.
The railroad started operating around 1780, according to Black History Canada, but didn’t adopt the name UGRR until sometime in the 1830s. Railroad terms such as ‘conductor’, ‘passengers’ and ‘cargo’ were used to help people move safely from place to place. Safe houses were known as ‘stations.’
The final stop on the UGRR is in St. Catharines, Ont., at the Salem Chapel, British Methodist Episcopal (BME) Church on Geneva Street.
Travelling along the UGRR reached its high between 1840 and 1860, growing quicker and deeper after the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1950. The law would gave slave owners the power to send slave hunters into areas where it was legal to be free, to pursue and capture slaves. The law resulted in slave hunters pursuing slaves into Canada and attempts to kidnap and return them to the southern states.
Although slavery was eventually abolished by Lincoln in1864 with the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation, hate and racism grew.
In 1929 one of America’s most influential civil rights activists was born, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” said Dr. Martin Luther King on Aug. 28, 1963 in his speech ‘I Have a Dream.’
The speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, by Dr. King during the March on Washington was said to be a defining moment in the American Civil Rights Movement.
“One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free,” Dr. King said after referencing the Emancipation Proclamation, which saw millions of slaves freed in 1863.
His speech described the dreams he had of equality and freedom rising from a land built of slavery and hate.
“With a single phrase, Martin Luther King, Jr. joined Jefferson and Lincoln in the ranks of men who’ve shaped modern America,” wrote Jon Meacham in his article One Man, published by Time magazine on Aug. 26, 2013.
Another powerful speaker in history is Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little. Also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, he was an African-American human rights activist and a Muslim minister.
Essentially orphaned early in life, Little lost his father, who was killed when he was six, and then his mother, who was placed in a mental hospital, when he was 13.
After growing up in many foster homes Little eventually went to prison at the age of 20, in 1946, for larceny and breaking and entering. It was in prison he joined the Nation of Islam. When he was paroled in 1952 he quickly became popular, rising to become the most influential leader Nation of Islam had had.
Little was the public face and opposition of everything Dr. King stood for. He espoused black supremacy, advocated the separation of black and white Americans and even ridiculed the Civil Rights Movement’s emphasis on integration.
In 1964 Little had grown tired of the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad, its leader and eventually repudiated the Nation, turning to Sunni Islam teachings. Little travelled through much of Africa and the Middle East before returning to the United States and founding Muslim Mosque, In. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Although he still emphasized Pan-Africanism, black self-determination, and black self-defence, he did not support racism.
Not long after turning away from the Nation of Islam, Little was assassinated by three of its members in February 1965.
A famous quote by Booker T. Washington encompasses how far African-Americans have come and the true success they have achieved from the breaking of the chains to the fall and the climb back up to the top.
“Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.”