Explore the Black History Month collection
History often lies. It omits details, and it brings forward favourable stories. Sometimes, historians get it wrong and they discover new information that shines a new light. Oftentimes, achievements and events are systematically suppressed because the person is black.
Imagine how much more progress humanity could have made if ethnic minorities and women weren’t dismissed whenever they showed ambition or shared new insights. How much more could we have learnt? One can only wonder.
Harvard-educated historian, Carter G. Woodson, was sick of wondering. The truth could not be denied any longer. So he announced that a week in February would be called Black History Week to celebrate the contributions of African Americans to society.
It was an immediate success as teachers asked for materials to educate their pupils on the subject while progressive whites also endorsed the event. When Woodson died in 1950, he may have been quite pleased with his efforts as Black History Week became a fundamental part of African American life and progress was being made to ease racial prejudice in the US.
As the years rolled by, more and more mayors of cities across the country started issuing yearly proclamations recognising Black History Week.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognised Black History Month. He declared to the public: “seize the opportunity to honour the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavour throughout our history.”
Ever since, February has been designated Black History Month in the US and a theme is usually adopted. For Black History Month 2021, the theme is ‘Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity.’
In honour of Carter G. Woodson’s original intention, we wanted to celebrate the incredible achievements of several African Americans. Let’s start with a big one.
The story of Jesse Owens’ lightning-fast performances at the 1936 Berlin Olympics serves as a bastion of hope against racial prejudice. But he was very close to not performing at all. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) convinced Jesse to boycott the event as they didn’t want to promote the Nazi regime.
But he changed his mind when the president of the American Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, branded Jesse and other black athletes “un-American agitators”.
Jesse went on to win the 100m dash, the long jump, the 200m sprint, and the 4 x 100m sprint relay. Winning four gold medals was a record-breaking tally that stood until Carl Lewis equalled it in the 1982 Los Angeles Olympics.
Despite the abolition of slavery in America in 1865, Bessie Coleman’s America still couldn’t accept the citizenship of their black neighbours when she was born in 1892. This did not deter Bessie from chasing her dreams. So when she heard the blistering tales of pilots fighting in WWI, she was inspired to take up aviation.
She tried to gain entry to flying schools around America but was denied again and again. Nothing would discourage her though. She taught herself French, moved to France, and earnt her licence at the well-known Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation in just seven months!
She became the first black women to earn a pilot’s licence and remains a pioneer in the world of aviation. When you specialise in stunt flying, as Bessie did, it’s not hard to imagine how impressive she must have looked soaring through the air performing acrobatics.
It’s a familiar story to many now. A young African American is inspired to be something – in this case, an actor – but US society does everything it can to stifle the ambition.
In this case, the young prospect was Ira Aldridge. And in 1824, aged 17, Ira emigrated to the UK with actor James Wallack, such was their exasperation at the discrimination they faced in America.
One year later, Aldridge made his European debut at London’s Royal Coburg Theatre. He became the first African American actor to establish himself professionally in a foreign country where he played the lead role of Oroonoko in The Revolt of Surinam.
Despite the enormous fame he garnered, news of his death filtered through the world extremely slowly. It’s stories like this that drove Carter G. Woodson to find a way to celebrate African American achievements.
Madam C. J. Walker
Madam C. J. Walker is credited as the first female self-made millionaire in America. She was the first child in her family born into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1862. But poverty was a consistent theme in her life.
She’d worked as a laundress, and a cook but the finances never looked favourable. The struggle peaked when she started losing her hair.
Things started turning around when she began using hair products by another African American woman, Annie Turnbo Malone. She even started selling her products but then decided she wanted to do it herself and created her own line of hair products.
Walker’s business grew rapidly and had employed 40,000 African Americans in the US, Central American and the Caribbean. With all this wealth, Walker felt she was in a position to help others and spent much of her money on philanthropic endeavours. This included covering the tuition of African American students, becoming active in the anti-lynching movement, and supporting the NAACP.
Just before her death, Walker changed her will and ended up donating two-thirds of future net profits to charity.
It’s unimaginable how many people have been denied opportunities thanks to colour barriers. How much further could we have progressed? In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball’s barrier.
It was always going to take someone with undeniable athletic ability and Jackie certainly showed that at an early age excelling in baseball, basketball, (American) football and track. It seemed to run in the family. His older brother Mack won silver medal in track and field at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.
There was a lot of noise when Jackie debuted for the Dodgers in 1947. But sadly, racist taunts, hate mail and death threats persisted for much of his career. Teammates would often put an arm around Jackie but it was his performances that silenced critics.
In his first year, he earned ‘Rookie of the year’ and was voted an All Star every year from 1949-1954. His legacy was honoured when his famed number 42 was retired by baseball teams in 1997.
These are just five African Americans who had to push through countless barriers to get where they wanted to be. While it serves as a story of fortitude, it’s also a reminder of the deep-rooted discrimination that has plagued our societies for centuries; a prejudice that still persists today.
So I ask again. How much have we missed? How many great athletes? How many genius scientists? How many trailblazing pioneers? What if the cure to cancer was in the mind of a young African American in the 1920s who was never given the opportunity to flourish and enrich the world?
See more African Americans who made great achievements in the face of discrimination