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Observed annually during the month of February, Black History Month is an important American tradition that dates all the way back to 1926. It was established by historian Carter G. Woodson to ensure that contributions made by African American men and women throughout history, would not be forgotten.
Originally called Negro History Week, it was celebrated on the second week of February, to coincide with the birthdays of two US leaders that helped African Americans gain equality - President Abraham Lincoln (Feb 12th) and human rights activist, Frederick Douglass (Feb 14th). While Mr. Woodson was hoping for a positive response to his idea, even he was surprised at the amount of interest and enthusiasm this week-long celebration generated - not just from the African Americans, but also, the progressive white population. What would have surprised him even more is that today, the event is celebrated for a whole month and not just in the USA - But also, Canada and even the United Kingdom.
Given that the USA has elected President Barack Obama not once, but twice, may lead one to question if today, Black History Month holds the same significance as it did during Mr. Woodson's era, when skin color was more important than ability. But as the esteemed philosopher and poet George Santayana once said:
'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'
And though we would like to tell you about all the amazing pioneers that helped pave the way for the success of not just African Americans but people of all color and gender, the list is simply too long. Here, is a small sampling:
While everybody knows about the valiant fight that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put up for equality, very few people have heard of Harriet Ross Tubman, a brave woman, who was born almost a century before Dr. King - During an era when African Americans were subjected to something even worse than apartheid - Slavery!
Born in Maryland in 1820 or 1821 to parents that were slaves, Harriet had a tough childhood, which did not seem to get any better when she married John Tubman, who had been born a free man because his parents had been released by their owner. Living in constant fear that she would be 'sold' and separated from her husband, she pleaded John to escape with her. Things came to a head in 1849, when Harriet's owners finally did decide to sell their plantation and her. She knew she had to escape with or without John.
While that decision was incredibly brave given that the jungles were teaming with bounty slave hunters, what was even more so, was that Harriet did not rest after she became a free woman. Instead, she kept endangering her life by returning, first to help her family and then complete strangers, to escape. If that was not enough, during the civil war she even worked as a spy for the Union Army! The best part was that she saw all her hard work pay off when slavery was finally abolished from the USA in 1865 by the enactment of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Her work done, Harriet then turned her focus to help the sick and wounded, a job she cherished until she succumbed to pneumonia in 1913, at the ripe old age of 92!
Born in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1913, Rosa Louisa McCauley encountered the same segregation that all African Americans did. But she did not really think about taking up the cause until she turned 18 and met her future husband, an activist by the name of Raymond Parks.
Slowly but surely, this quiet woman started to become angry about the situation - This anger was aggravated when she joined the army Air Force base where thanks to President Franklin D Roosevelt, segregation was not allowed. But once outside the base things were back to normal again, starting from the bus she sat in every single day. The situation irked her enough that she once even protested against it, by sitting in the section reserved for 'Whites Only'. Except for the fact that she got tossed off the bus by the driver, this incident, which happened several years prior to the one that is known to world, went largely unnoticed.
Then came that fateful day on December 1st, 1955. As was her routine Rosa climbed on the bus only to find out that it was being driven by Jim Blake, the same driver that had ruthlessly shoved her out, 12 years ago. Not allowing it to unnerve her, she simply went and parked herself in the first row reserved for blacks. However, as the bus picked up additional passengers, the 'Whites Only' section began to fill up, prompting the driver to urge African Americans to give up their seats. While many moved, Rosa sat tight refusing to let him push her around anymore. This simple act, for which she was arrested and jailed, marks what historians refer to today, as a new era in America's quest for freedom and equality!
Faced with nationwide protests and a transport boycott, the Supreme Court had no choice, but to listen and declare segregation in public transportation illegal. Encouraged by the small victory, Rosa joined Dr. King and together with other brave activists finally succeeded in getting the Civil Rights Act, which forbade discrimination against race or gender, passed in 1964. Rosa Parks had succeeded! The brave woman, who finally retired at 78, spent her twilight years in Detroit, Michigan where she died of natural causes on October 24th, 2005 at the ripe age of 92.
In a world where African American athletes are amongst the best in almost any sport, it is hard to believe that they were once thought to be people with no skill or talent - That unfortunately was the era Jackie Robinson grew up in.
Born in Georgia in 1919, Jackie would have grown up facing the same kind of segregation as Dr. King and Rosa Parks. Fortunately, his mother had the foresight to relocate the family to Los Angeles, California, where things were not as bad.
Jackie's athletic prowess that was apparent since the day he entered kindergarten continued through high school, where he was a star athlete participating in everything ranging from track, basketball to football and of course, baseball. This continued when he went to UCLA, where he was a key member of the University's basketball, golf and tennis but ironically, not baseball team.
But much as he loved sports, Jackie knew that he could not make a living playing it, because African American athletes were simply not permitted to join any teams. It was only many years later while working for the US army that Jackie discovered from a fellow solder that he could make a decent living playing for the Negro baseball leagues. While not in love with the game, Jackie decided to pursue it anyway and was immediately hired by the Kansas City Monarchs.
The rest as they say is history - A sports scout recognized Jackie's talent and referred him to Branch Rickey the President of the Brooklyn Dodgers, where he was immediately hired first for its minor league team, The Montreal Monarchs and then in 1947, for the Brooklyn Dodgers - Given that he was the first black man playing for either teams, things were not always easy, but Jackie persevered by having the guts NOT to fight back when taunted by either his fellow mates or the crowds, and instead focusing his energy on playing the game well.
This fact was amply proven when he helped his team get to the World Series during his first season. Though they did not win, it was a major achievement for both the Brooklyn Dodgers and Jackie. After breaking several records and even helping his team win the coveted series in 1956, the star athlete decided it was time to retire and pursue other things like joining Dr. King in the now famous March on Washington in August, 1963.
After the Civil Rights Bill was passed, Jackie kept making history. He was the first African American president of a major American company, the first African American television analyst for major league baseball and of course, in 1962, the first African American baseball player to be inducted into National Baseball Hall of Fame. Though the amazing trail blazer who paved the way for many African American athletes passed away from diabetes and heart-related complications when he was just 53-years old, his memory lives on with us, forever.