February is known as Black History Month. It is a time when special notice is taken of the historical contributions of African-Americans. Although much attention is devoted to well-known historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth, here are some lesser-known examples of makers of African-American history whose lives and works should be noted by all Americans, black and white.
Olaudah Equiano came to the United States as a slave, later bought his freedom and then wrote a book recounting his experiences. He related being kept in the hold of the slave ship: “The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us.” He remembered one day “when we had a smooth sea and moderate wind, two of my wearied countrymen who were chained together preferring death to such a life of misery, somehow made through the nettings and jumped into the sea and I believe many more would very soon have done the same if they had not been prevented by the ship’s crew.” Thanks to the writings of Olaudah Equiano, 18th century Americans became aware of the horrors of slavery.
To most Americans, the conqueror of the Arctic was Robert E. Peary, long believed to be the first man to reach the North Pole. But little recognition was given at the time to his African-American colleague, Matthew Henson, who accompanied Peary during his expeditions, was present when Perry reached the North Pole, and ultimately spent seven years as Peary’s traveling companion in the Arctic. While Peary received awards and extensive publicity, his traveling companion was largely forgotten. It was not until many years later that Henson was recognized for his achievements. That oversight highlighted the racism of his day, but also Henson’s own fortitude in performing valuable service despite it.
When Shirley Chisholm arrived in the U.S. House of Representatives, she was sure to be noticed. She was the first African-American woman elected to Congress. There were only nine other black members in the House at the time, and only 10 other women in a body with 435 members. Racist congressional leaders assigned her to the Agriculture Committee, hoping it would make her ineffectual to her Harlem constituency. But Chisholm used this position to promote the food stamp program. She formed an alliance with a new Republican senator from Kansas, Bob Dole, and they introduced legislation creating the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program that now benefits millions of Americans.
Ultimately, Chisholm spent 14 years in Congress, and during that time became the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Just before she died, Chisholm said: “I want history to remember me not just as the first black woman to be elected to Congress, not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and dared to be herself.”
In 1995, administrators at the University of Southern Mississippi received a $150,000 donation to fund scholarships for financially needy black students from Mississippi. That in itself was not unusual. Affluent people often donate to universities. But the donor in this case was Oseola McCarty, an 87-year-old African-American washer woman who had spent a life time washing other people’s clothes and saving her money. McCarty lived alone in a small house, used an air conditioner only when company came, and took a vacation once. The money she donated for scholarships was 60 percent of her life savings. President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal and Harvard University gave her an honorary doctorate. But Osceola McCarty gave much more than $150,000. She gave the rest of us an unforgettable example of selfless sacrifice.
During Black History Month, all of us, whether we are African-American or not, should take time to remember the influence of so many African-Americans in our nation’s history who have shaped our society despite the racism they encountered. We are better for their place in America’s history.