Why we need Black History Month

Also called African American History Month, I wrote about this last year, and I will write about it again. As I see it, this will be a long-standing debate Black History between races, on our end, a debate of the ignorant. This time of year, without fail, someone on Facebook will post, “Why do we need Black History Month?” The formation of what would eventually be known as Black History Month began way back in 1915, a creation of minister Jesse E. Moorland and historian Carter G. Woodson. It’s a way of promoting the accomplishments of African Americans.

Back to the “why?” Have you ever heard of Claudette Colvin? Lewis Latimer? Daniel Hale Williams?  Frederick McKinley Jones? No? This is why we need Black History Month.

Claudette Colvin: Black History Claudette ColvinAt the age of 15, Colvin refused to move to the back of the bus, nine months before Rosa Parks did the same. The young activist studied the Jim Crow Laws and black leaders such as Harriet Tubma
n in school, which prompted her actions. The bus incident landed the teenager in jail. Colvin, along with Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, three other women discriminated against as a result of the segregation policy of the Montgomery bus system, went to court to challenge the law. That case, Browder v. Gayle, eventually ended up in the United States Supreme Court which ordered the state of Alabama (and Montgomery) to desegregate its buses.Black History Lewis Latimer

Lewis Latimer: Latimer was an inventor and engineer. After an honorable discharge from the navy, he took a job at a patent law firm as an office boy. By observing the draftsmen at work, he taught himself mechanical drawing and drafting. His bosses noticed his talents and promoted him to draftsman. He designed a number of inventions, and eventually found himself working with Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. Latimer drafted the patent for the telephone, and ended up inventing a light bulb that outlasted Edison’s original.

Black History Daniel Hale WilliamsDaniel Hale Williams: Williams, or as he was called, Dr. Dan, was a surgeon in Chicago. Though he himself found success, he realized the lack of medical training for black doctors and nurses and deficiency in medical care for blacks. At the time, blacks were barred from being admitted to hospitals and black doctors were refused staff positions. In 1891, Dr. Dan founded Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses, the first interracial hospital and medical training facility. In 1893, Williams also performed one of the first successful open heart surgeries.

Frederick McKinley Jones: On his own from age 11, Jones did odd jobs to survive. He became adept at mechanics, and while working at a garage, continued to read up on the subject to improve his craft. Eventually his skills landed him a job on a farm where he taught himself about electronics. He began inventing machines when doctors needed a way to make house calls in the snow. He attached skis to the undercarriage of an old airplane body and a propeller to a motor.  His “Snow Machine” easily got doctors to their destinations. He continued to invent, including a portable x-ray machine, a radio transmitter, and a device to combine sound with motion pictures. He patented more than 60 inventions, most of them were in refrigeration. Jones was responsible for advances in truck refrigeration, enabling the long-haul transportation of perishable goods. This helped greatly during World War II for the preservation and transportation of blood, medicines, and food to the battlefield and hospitals.

Want another? Read my blog about Bessie Coleman. This is just a handful of the profusion of great, but little known, African Americans that have made history.

Have you learned something? American history classes somehow seemed to omit the accomplishments of great African Americans – those who made advances in science, the creators and innovators, the artists and musicians, the ones who championed for civil rights, those whose contributions helped shape our American culture. Theirs is a history that should be learned and integrated with the rest of American history, as it is prolific with stories of possibility, aspiration, adversity, success, and inspiration.

The relevance of Bessie Coleman

 

In these times in which women march for their freedoms, fear for their rights, and fight against a tyrannical regime, it’s good to remember those that came before. So many women have made great strides toward equality and have inspired not just women, but all who have faced oppression, to chase their goals and dreams. Once such woman was Bessie Coleman, whose 125th birthday is today.

If you don’t know who Bessie Coleman was, you are missing out. She was the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license. The daughter of impoverished sharecroppers, she was one of 13 children. She grew up during a time when lynching was commonplace, blacks were barred from voting, and segregation was a way of life.

Her first school was a one room shack that often couldn’t even afford paper or pencils. At 12 years old, Coleman attended the Missionary Baptist Church in Texas. After graduating, she spent one year at a college in Oklahoma, then eventually ended up in Chicago living with her brothers and working as a manicurist.

Wild stories of flying exploits from returning World War I pilots captivated Coleman and inspired her to become an aviator. Taunting from her brother about how French women were better than black women because they could fly spurred her on even more. She saved her money and applied for flight school. However, every school she submitted to turned her down. She had two strikes against her – her race and her gender. There were very few female pilots at the time, and those were primarily white and wealthy.

bessie colemanUnder the advice and with backing of Robert Abbott a lawyer, newspaper publisher, and one of the first African American millionaires, Coleman learned French and moved to France to attend the Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation. She had her international pilot’s license within seven months.

One of Coleman’s goals upon returning to the US was to start a flight school for African Americans. Instead, she became a daring stunt pilot, specializing in aerial tricks and parachuting. She became a popular performer to crowds of thousands, with many reporters and dignitaries in attendance. While she didn’t open a flight school, she used her celebrity status to encourage other African Americans to fly and also refused to perform at locales that denied admission to members of her race.

On April 30th, 1926, at the age of 34, Bessie Coleman took her last flight. While flying with another pilot in preparation for an airshow, a wrench became lodged in the control gears causing the plane to plummet toward the ground. Coleman was thrown from the plane and fell to her death.

Coleman’s funeral was attended by approximately 10,000 including many prominent African Americans. Suffragist, feminist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells presided over the service.

The plight of Bessie Coleman is still relevant. Female and African American pilots are still rare, not only in the United States, but worldwide. 90% of pilots are white and just above 5% are female.

An inspiration still to this day, Coleman defied gender and racial barriers, becoming a symbol of equal rights for all. Coleman is proof, that as an African American and a woman, dreams are attainable.

“Because of Bessie Coleman, we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.” ~ American engineer, soldier, civil aviator and author William J. Powell