By SANCHA K. GRAY
Black History is traditionally celebrated from Feb. 1 – Feb. 28. However, Black History is American and World History, which should position February as the starting point for broader conversations. My life’s mission is to change the trajectory of people’s lives. So, when I arrived in the Asbury Park School District in October 2014, I established an annual program that would showcase the contributions of Black Americans in the City of Asbury Park, Monmouth County, New Jersey, the nation and beyond. This year, our Black History Extravaganza has been combined with Women’s History Month and will be held virtually on Fri., March 12 The theme is Black HERstory and will include student performances as well as surprise greetings from some of our nation’s key female policymakers. I invite you to join us!
Following are some facts about Black History Month. Originally called Negro History Week in 1926, it was founded by Harvard-educated Carter G. Woodson. In 1970, it was rebranded to what it is called today. Since its inception, this celebration has represented the lense through which we dream and marvel at the all too-often neglected accomplishments of Black sheroes and heroes. For those who do not realize, Black History is even more important today because America is grappling with structural racism as well as microaggressions and implicit biases that has led to the ongoing unprecedented resurgence of intolerance, not so openly seen since the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the Jim Crow South or the days of Brown v. The Board of Education.
So journey with me as we briefly look through this window at some lesser-known, female hidden figures who underscore why it is essential that our nation remember, know and celebrate Black Herstory. Without them, there would be no us as they paved the way for those we salute today.
Mae Jemison was the first Black woman who orbited space aboard the shuttle Endeavour. She’s also a physician, teacher and a Peace Corps volunteer. She continues to work toward equity for women of color in fields of technology, engineering and math.
Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman elected to Congress representing New York’s 12th District from 1969 to 1983. In 1972, she became the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination with the slogan “Unbought and Unbossed.”
Bessie Coleman was the first licensed Black pilot in the world but she wasn’t acknowledged as a pioneer in aviation until well after her death as her counterparts Amelia Earhart and the Wright Brothers dominated history books. Coleman, who attended flight school in France in 1919, paved the way for the Tuskegee Airmen, Blackbirds and today’s Coast Guard Fab Five.
Dorothy Height dubbed the “godmother of the women’s movement,” used her background in education and social work to advance women’s rights. She served as president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) for more than 40 years and was one of a few women who played an active role in the 1963 March On Washington.
Irene Morgan Kirkaldy in 1944 refused to give up her seat on a bus in Virginia to a white passenger. She was convicted but the ruling was overturned two years later thanks to help from NAACP lawyers including Thurgood Marshall. She took this stance 11 years before Rosa Parks, which sparked the famed bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955.
Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. A sample of her cancer cells were taken without her consent by a researcher. Though she died from the disease, her cells would go on to advance medical research for years to come, as they had the unique ability to double every 24 hours.
While these sheroes accomplished much, their stories represent pieces of untaught history because in many schools the contributions of Black people, particularly women, are omitted. Now more than ever, it’s crucial to keep the conversation going beyond February. Sadly however, we are still tackling some of the same injustices in 2021 – fighting police brutality and structural racism, protecting voting rights, and addressing economic and health disparities — as in the last century.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that we can create an equitable future when we work together. We must be deliberate and unwavering in ensuring that history accurately reflects the life-changing contributions of ALL people, and resist any efforts that would set us back. Our words matter and our actions solidify them. Everyone can be the voice of unity and inclusion. And while it is crucial for us to honor our past, it is equally important to embrace future Black leaders, such as Amanda Gorman, America’s first-ever Youth Poet Laureate. She said it best in “The Hill We Climb:”
“When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid the new dawn balloons as we free it. For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Our nation’s schools must agree to teach a more comprehensive American history; one that gives our students the hope they need for building a brighter future. Let’s purposefully make the conversation about Black History and Women’s History continuous.
Please join us on Fri., March 1 for our virtual Black Herstory Extravaganza! Check our website at www.asburypark.k12.nj.us for the link.
Sancha K. Gray is Superintendent of the Asbury Park School District.