Every so often, even now, somebody asks why America needs a Black History Month, which kicked off Tuesday. Isn’t that discriminatory? Shouldn’t there be a White History Month, the predictable argument usually goes?
One possible answer is that white Americans weren’t held in slavery for 300 years.
White Americans were not forbidden to learn to read and write by law.
White Americans — at least men — were not forbidden to vote, by discriminatory laws and unwritten custom, for seven decades.
Sure, some white Americans were lynched. Black Americans, however, were lynched by the thousands between the Civil War and the Korean War.
It is a terrible toll.
Yet black history is more than a chronicle of atrocities. It is a tale of how tens of thousands of people strived and achieved much, despite all their hardships and limitations imposed upon them by both society and the government.
Those achievements were often intentionally ignored, in both the press of the day and by the writers of history books. These stories can be found in every community in the nation, if one cares to look:
William Benjamin Gould, a Wilmington slave, was a master plasterer. He escaped in a boat in the middle of the Civil War, served in the Navy for the duration and then moved north and became a successful contractor.
Henry Taylor, an African-American who built many houses standing in Wilmington today, sent his son Robert Taylor to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Robert Taylor became one of the nation’s foremost architects, black or white.
Wilmington’s Caterina Jarboro beat the odds to become an operatic soprano in Europe.
Southport’s Abraham Galloway escaped from slavery and spent much of the Civil War in New Bern, North Carolina, where he served as a Union spy and recruited freed slaves for the U.S. Colored Troops (see more on that group below). He became a state senator and helped write our state’s constitution.
Althea Gibson honed her tennis game in Wilmington and then went on to break the color barrier in international tennis, winning both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1957 and 1958.
In Kinston, North Carolina, we can learn about the South Queen Street district, where formerly enslaved people and their descendants became successful entrepreneurs and community leaders.
We can learn about James Tim Brymn, aka “Mr. Jazz Himself,” the talented Kinston musician and composer who, while serving in the Army during World War I, introduced continental Europe to the new sounds of ragtime and very early jazz. He became known for his compositions “Tar Heel Blues Rag” (1914) and “Cocoanut Grove Jazz” (1917), one of the earliest pieces of published music to include the word “jazz” in the title.
In New Bern, we expand Civil War history with the story of the 1st North Carolina Colored Regiment of Volunteers, one of the first Union regiments predominantly made up of ex-slaves.
During World War II, Montford Point of Jacksonville, North Carolina, was the site of recruit training for the first African-Americans to serve in the Marines. The men of the 51st Battalion distinguished themselves as the finest artillery gunners in the Marine Corps, breaking almost every accuracy record in training.
Many people, black and white, don’t know these stories. In some cases, they had never been told. We need Black History Month because too many pages of American history were left incomplete — or simply blank.
In a 2017 essay for the Dallas Morning News, University of Texas at Austin history professor Eddie Chambers observed:
“I am still shocked and saddened at the level of ignorance among students of important events and personalities that are part of African-American history, and consequently, American history. ... One cannot understand or fully grasp the history of the United States without an understanding and appreciation of the African-American history embedded within it. We make a chronic mistake if we ever think that African-American history is of primary relevance only to African-American people. African-American history is important for all Americans. It is this that simple assertion that emphasizes the continued importance of Black History Month.”