February marks the beginning of Black History Month. This is an important opportunity to pause, reflect, and grow. It is an invitation to learn about the valuable contributions of Black leaders in shaping the course of U.S. history. Our nonprofit, Planting People Growing Justice, visits schools during Black History Month to read our collection of diverse books and share key lessons from history. During each of our Black History Month visits, I start with the question: “Who founded Black History Month?” I have yet to hear a correct answer from students, parents, teachers, or administrators. I receive a range of answers from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to Rosa Parks or even Ruby Bridges. Some local Saint Paul students have even called out: Mayor Melvin Carter III. I applaud the initiative to share these responses since this is a remarkable list of heroes and sheroes. Yet, this raises concern about one’s awareness of Black History Month and its origins.
Black History Month was founded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson. In 1926, Dr. Woodson launched Negro History Week. His goal was to celebrate and honor Black achievements and build a legacy of change. There are many misconceptions about Black History Month. Some believe that celebrating Black History Month in February is meant to minimize the significance of the contributions of the African American community since it is a mere 28 days (29 during a Leap Year) and not a full 30-31 days. However, the month of February was a deliberate and calculated choice. Dr. Woodson selected the month of February since it is the birth month of two individuals whom he deeply admired. He sought to honor Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass who both played a significant role in abolishing slavery. Historically, celebrations were held on their birthdays which are the 12th (Lincoln) and 14th (Douglass). Woodson wanted to create a bridge between this tradition and foster a tradition of honoring the past contributions of the Black community with the founding of Negro History Week. Beginning in 1976, U.S. presidents have proclaimed February as Black History Month annually.
Throughout February, I will continue my mission of visiting schools and teaching about Black History Month. I will begin by sharing about the 2023 theme which is: Black Resistance. This signifies the important role of Black leaders who fought for racial equality and justice. I will introduce unsung Black sheroes who are featured in my latest books.
Have you heard of one of the first self-made female millionaires who established her own college in 1918 (Poro College) and developed a global haircare empire? Annie Turnbo Malone experimented with different combinations of chemicals, herbs, mineral oils, and vegetables to create hair care products. She created a special mix, Wonderful Hair Grower, which became a bestseller.
Malone employed 75,000 women in the haircare and beauty industry as Poro agents. Her most notable mentee was Sarah Breedlove Walker; better known as: Madam C.J. Walker. In addition to being an innovative entrepreneur and community leader, Malone was also a philanthropist. She supported higher education by funding scholarships at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and supporting an orphanage in St. Louis—now the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center.
Did you know three years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus and accept the inhumane conditions of segregation, a soldier took a stand for justice? Most people have heard about Rosa Parks’ brave actions that led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955. But other Black women challenged segregation in transportation like Ida B. Wells and Claudette Colvin. Three years before the bus boycott, Sarah Keys Evans refused to give up her seat on a bus traveling from New Jersey to visit her family in North Carolina. She was dressed in full uniform when she was told to give her seat to a white Marine. She refused and was arrested. She filed a complaint with the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC)—Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company. It challenged the discrimination Evans faced by calling attention to federal law on interstate commerce. On Nov.7, 1955, the ICC ruled in favor of Evans. The ICC agreed that the segregation Evans experienced had been “undue and unreasonable prejudice and disadvantage,” which violated the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887.
Did you know there was an all-Black female battalion serving in Europe during World War II? The 6888th was the lifeline of World War II. They ended a two-year backlog of mail services by organizing over 17 million pieces of mail in Birmingham, England. They completed the mission in three months although it was anticipated to take twice as long. This was vitally important since mail served as a connection between soldiers and their loved ones by providing encouragement and support. The motto was: “No mail, low morale.” They also cleared backlogs in Rouen, France and Paris, France. To honor their leadership and service, a monument dedicated to the 6888th was placed at the Buffalo Soldier Monument Park in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in 2018. Last year, the 6888th battalion was honored with the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’ highest honor.
Black History Month is an invitation to learn more about United States history. These book recommendations can serve as resources on your learning journey:
• The Untold Story of Annie Turnbo Malone: Hair Care Millionaire, by Dr. Artika R. Tyner, Capstone (2023).
• The Untold Story of Sarah Keys Evans: Civil Rights Soldier, by Dr. Artika R. Tyner, Capstone (2023).
• The Courageous Six Triple Eight: The All-Black Female Battalion of World War II, by Dr. Artika R. Tyner, Capstone (2023).
For additional book recommendations, you can visit: https://bookshop.org/shop/plantingpeoplegrowingjustice.
Through her organization, Planting People Growing Justice Leadership Institute, Dr. Artika Tyner seeks to plant seeds of social change through education, training, and community outreach.
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