Black History Month ended in February, or did it? The answer to that is an unequivocal no! While it is important to set aside a month to celebrate and acknowledge the Black experience and achievements, those achievements should be celebrated every month of the year. Every month should be Black History Month, because Black history is world history. As I reflected on Black history, I thought about my personal experiences and connections with historical events in Black/African-American history – from Africa to Alabama and beyond.
We are who and what we are. We are shaped by our backgrounds, experiences, and values. No doubt all of that has influenced and defined who and what I am today. Simply put, my values entail approaching all situations with humility and treating all people with dignity and respect. To begin, I was born in Ghana (formerly known as the Gold Coast), which is the first Sub-Saharan African nation with which Europeans made contact. That was the Portuguese in 1471. Ghana was also the first African nation to gain independence from a colonial power – England in 1957. After independence, the Gold Coast changed its name to Ghana, which had been one of the great pre-colonial African empires. The current nation of Ghana has the dubious distinction of having more slave castles/forts than any other nation. I have had the non-pleasure of visiting a Dutch fort in Ghana and seen the trail that snakes from that fort many miles to the coast where the slaves were loaded on ships to be sent to the New World. Near the fort were plantations where the slaves worked to produce various products, after the export of slaves was banned. Ghana is the only nation that I know where tribal leaders who perpetrated slavery, have apologized to other tribal leaders and to the African diaspora who were victimized by the sale of humans.
Up the West African Coast, a few countries from Ghana is Senegal, the capital of which is Dakar. Off the coast of Dakar is Goree Island. Goree Island is now a tourist resort. Goree’s claim to fame is that it was the last stop on the journey before slaves were shipped to the New World. I spent 19 months in Senegal as a teenager and visited Goree on at least two occasions. The Island has a huge castle/fort with winding underground tunnels and dungeons that were used to hold slaves. The shackles and chains from those years are still present in the dungeons. Goree is not that different from any of the other castles/forts, with its chains, shackles and dungeons – they are all reminders of the ignominy that was slavery. Like at other slave castles in places such as Elmina and Cape Coast, both in Ghana, many Africans in the diaspora who visit these venues come away emotional and tearful. It is an unpleasant sight to behold (that’s extreme euphemism).
On to the United States. Baltimore Maryland, my “home”, where I spent many of my formative years in and after college. Baltimore is where Frederick Douglass, the great black orator and abolitionist, escaped from slavery. The population of the city of Baltimore is predominantly African-American and the unemployment rate is approximately twice that of the state average. While it is a thriving city for some, it is not as great for many others. I spent my college years in a rough and tumble inner city neighborhood in Baltimore.
I left Baltimore in 1984 and moved to Mississippi to attend graduate school at Mississippi State University. You see, it was the least expensive institution to which I was admitted. Purdue, Iowa State, and the University of Florida were just too expensive without financial aid. All this in spite of the fact that I had earned summa cum laude undergraduate honors and a 4.0 GPA at the master’s level. So, I spent almost three years in Mississippi, where I heard it all (you know what I mean) and experienced discrimination in many forms. Mississippi was the place where Emmitt Till and many other blacks were lynched and killed.
I left Mississippi in 1987, Ph.D. in hand, moved back to Baltimore, but went back to the Deep South for more of the southern experience. I spent eleven years of my life in a place called Talladega Alabama. This was ironically one of the best places I have ever lived. Talladega College, a Historically Black College/University (HBCU) was founded by the American Missionary Society to educate and train freed slaves. The first building on campus, Swayne Hall, was built by slave labor. The Amistad (Slave Mutiny) murals are located in Savery Library at Talladega College. While at Talladega, I had the opportunity to visit many other historically significant venues. These included the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama – I spoke at this place, which in 1963 had been bombed by white supremacists, killing four innocent black girls. I spent time in Anniston Alabama, one of the places where many Freedom Riders were physically attacked and beaten. I also once worshipped at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, where both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his father had served as pastors. I had a chance to meet all of Dr. King’s children on different occasions. Many a time, I visited Montgomery and Selma, and crossed over the Edmund Pettus (Selma) Bridge. Also while at Talladega, I had the honor of working with Mr. Harold Franklin, the first Black to integrate Auburn University. Franklin’s office was directly across from mine, he taught history, and I taught economics. Needless to say, I heard many horror stories. I also spent time at Tuskegee University ( I visited, lectured and was recruited to teach there), in Alabama, founded by Booker T. Washington, and interviewed at and was offered a position (which I did not accept) at Fisk University, in Tennessee, W.E. B. Dubois’ alma mater.
After I left Alabama, I took a position at Lincoln University. Another HBCU named for the great president who issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It was at Lincoln that I learned about Juneteenth. You see, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves. There were slaves being held in Galveston Texas (been there) until two years after the Proclamation. It was not until June 19, 1865 that they learned that they were free. By the way, it is worth noting that Lincoln University is an 1890 Land Grant Institution founded by the 62nd and 65th Colored Infantries, “Buffalo Soldiers” who after returning from the Civil War, founded an institution to educate themselves and their progeny.
So, after recounting much of my “Black History” experiences, I end this educational, and hopefully edifying and illuminating lesson with a statement about the importance of education. Indeed, much progress has been made by African-Americans since the days of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. Invariably, the only way forward is through education in all its forms. That is why I am so proud to be in this great profession of education that transforms and enriches lives, regardless of one’s background, nationality, ethnicity or color.