February is Black History Month. It’s that time when students are taught about notable African-American men and women, and their contributions to American society.
They’ll listen to musicians like Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins and John Coletrane. Read writers like Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. They might hear speeches from civic leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
They’ll more than likely learn about black scientists and visionaries, like Dr. Charles R. Drew, who discovered that separating blood into plasma and whole blood could help the blood last longer and save the lives of those who could receive plasma without need for blood typing.
They will undoubtedly hear about George Washington Carver’s contributions to the sciences of agriculture – probably over a peanut butter sandwich or peanut butter cookies.
They might even hear about Gerald “Jerry” Lawson, an electronic engineer and the “father of modern gaming,” celebrated for his work on cartridge based gaming systems. (No Lawson, no Atari. No Nintendo. No Sega.)
This is all wonderful content. It’s the kind of things our kids should be taught about, and not just during Black History Month, but all year long. The contributions of African American doctors, scientists, inventors and artists are all important.
But discussing Black History also means acknowledging a dark side of American – and by extension European – history, and that’s the horrors of the slave trade. Slavery in the territories that would become America are older than the nation itself. British, Spanish, French and Portuguese colonists made a lot of money in agriculture and mining in the New World, but they didn’t do all that hard work themselves. Instead they imported people from Africa to do that work for them. This, of course, was after they enslaved, ran off, or wiped out the Native peoples who were here before them (particularly in the Caribbean where few traces of the original indigenous inhabitants remain).
The prosperity of the New World was built on what would come to be called the Triangular Trade System. Under this system manufactured goods from Europe were traded for slaves in Africa. Those slaves were, in turn, taken to and traded for sugar, rum and other agricultural goods in the Caribbean and mainland Americas, and those agricultural goods were shipped back to Europe.
Though the British themselves would abolish slavery in Britain and their colonies by 1833 (after legally, if not factually, ending the slave trade in 1807), and Vermont was the first of the New England colonies to abolish slavery beginning in 1777, this European legacy would persist as the southern states’ “peculiar institution” until the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) and through the end of the Civil War in 1865.
In fact, many slaves did not know they had been freed in some parts of the south, such as Texas, until well after the Emancipiation Proclamation and the end of the war. This is the origin of Juneteenth celebrations, named for the June 19, 1865 proclamation – more than one month after the end of the war on May 9 of that year – of Union Army General Gordon Granger declaring an end to slavery in Texas.
Slavery would persist in border states like Delaware and Kentucky, which hadn’t left the Union, until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December of 1865.
This is all part of most American History classes, and the Civil War continues to be a popular topic for history courses and historical documentaries and dramas. But so much of the focus is on the battles, or the politics. It’s true the degradations of slavery are discussed, along with the fervor of abolitionists and the bravery of those conductors on the Underground Railroad who helped shepherd their fellow man to freedom and safety in the northern states and Canada. Indeed, it would be impossible to discuss the conflict without discussing it. But despite this, little discussion is given to the roles black men and women – unnamed and unrewarded – have played in building this nation from the very beginning.
Even less is said of their roles in the early labor movement, and in working with white coal miners to bring unions and fair wages and safety regulations into the coal mines. Since the beginning, black men and women have been an integral part of making this nation what it is – the good, the bad and everything in between.
Black history is American history, and while it’s great that we have a month where we acknowledge those contributions of notable black Americans, we need to do more to acknowledge their contributions throughout the rest of the school year too. Not just the contributions of those visionaries and artists and innovators, but of all the sharecroppers and coal miners and soldiers and more who helped us shape the America we know today.