Thought for the Week – Redefining Black History Month

Cornell Jackson reflects on the significance of Black History Month for African Americans, delving into his family’s history, the legacy of slavery, the Great Migration.

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As an African American, October is not Black History month, February is. The reason for February is that is the birth month of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. However, that designation is problematic. Please do ask me about it when you see me.

I will use my family’s history as a guide to exploring Black History month. My ancestors were slaves in Virginia probably working on tobacco plantations. My mother and younger sister thought our ancestors may have worked on the Monticello plantation of Thomas Jefferson. It turns out that was not the case. I believe that among the US presidents that owned slaves, Jefferson was the only one not to free his slaves by the time of his death.

One legacy of US slavery is the difficulty of tracing your family back to its African source. Which made African Americans one of the only groups not able to pinpoint exactly where they come from. But, thanks to genetic technology in the 21st century, that is changing.

One of the seminal events for African Americans was the great migration. The first one was just after World War I which brought Blacks to fill the labour force of the Northern factories. The big attraction was escaping the oppression of the South. There was racism up north but  the oppression was much less. Some communities in the south set up checkpoints to prevent African Americans from leaving. The second migration brought my parents from Virginia and North Carolina to Philadelphia in the 1950’s.

In the 1940’s, my mother was not allowed to go to school after age 12 because Virginia did not want to educate Black children beyond primary school. Fortunately, Julius Rosenwald, leader of Sears Roebuck company who was appalled by this situation in Virginia and other southern states, built 5,000 secondary schools. My grandmother moved the family from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the town of Waynesboro so that my mother could attend Mr Rosenwald’s school. The school couldn’t issue a high school diploma. My mother had to get her diploma during her first year at university and was the first in the family to got to university. She went to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T). It was a black university that was also the alma mater of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Its students started the civil rights sit-in movement.

In 1963, during the civil rights campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama, I watched the TV news and saw children my age (8 years old) being beaten and arrested by the police, chased and bitten by police dogs and firemen literally rolling these kids down the street with water cannons. This is the reason I had a Vagabonds session (Vagabonds was a spiritual discussion group that met in a pub for many years at St James’s) called Faith in Action based on the Birmingham campaign. The most important thing that happened in Birmingham was that the civil rights campaigners won despite all the bad things that happened. Birmingham was desegregated.

From my perspective, the two most important things to happen to African Americans was the significant increase of both their political and economic power. The political power increase is not just represented by the election of Barack Obama as president  but the election of significant numbers of African Americans to several federal, state and local offices. For example, without the African American attorney general elected in Minnesota, it is highly likely that the murderer of George Floyd who have been held truly accountable.

The economic power comes from the large African American middle class that has developed over the decades. Numerous Black leaders have stressed the importance of economic power including Dr King, Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson, etc. Middle class people are much less tolerant of the crap that poor people have to put up with. Now with this economic power, corporations want to sell to Black people which means they need to cater to their needs. So whatever the governor of Florida thinks, Disney will have a Black Little Mermaid. African Americans are now running big corporations.

So, economic and political power has allowed us progress despite the ever present reality of racism. My family history is an example of progress has been made from slavery through Jim Crow segregation and oppression into the best situation we have ever had.

However, there is still a long way to go.