By Linda Tarrant-Reid
When February ended, I thought to myself that’s it, the end of Black History Month? No more corporate commercials on TV acknowledging the contributions of our African American legends. No more documentaries focused on the struggle and the successes we gained in our fight for equality. No more articles in newspapers, print and digital, telling of little known stories about the black experience in America. No more sales, workshops, book signings or cooking demos at stores who experience an increase in their bottom line by marketing a month long celebration of black folks.
I thought to myself, that can’t be, we must expand the brand of Black History Month and make it every day, every month and all year round! After all, African Americans are a founding people in America; we’ve been here from the beginning. Why not include our history in American history, on each and every page.
We were at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, the first permanent British colony. We were the “20. and Odd Negroes” hijacked by privateers from a Portuguese slave ship on its way to Veracruz, Mexico that detoured to Jamestown and sold its human cargo to the English colonists instead. We built that colony and became free citizens of Virginia after a time. We owned land, raised cattle, settled our disputes in court and raised our families.
One African family, the Anthony Johnson Family, eventually acquired 800 acres after they were freed, around1625, from their indentured servitude (working as servants for no pay, then after a period of time receiving freedom and a parcel of land). The family prospered in Virginia’s Northampton County and later in Somerset County, Maryland, where they moved in 1665.
Even after we were enslaved in the cruel institution of “chattel slavery” by the 1660s, we were still survivors. We learned to read and write, although it was forbidden by the white slave masters; we created our own worship services off in the woods undetected from the plantation overseers; and we invented tools and equipment,
like using a comb to clean cotton, a process attributed to an enslaved gentleman named Sam, and not Eli Whitney the publicly acknowledged white inventor of the cotton gin.
We fought in all of America’s wars whether enslaved or free beginning with the American Revolution up to today, including conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first martyr of the American Revolution was black sailor Crispus Attucks who was killed in 1770 in the Boston Massacre. Black militia fought at the Battles of Lexington and Concord and at Bunker Hill in Massachusetts. Enslaved blacks fought in Westchester County in the Battle of Pines Bridge in Yorktown and in Virginia at the Battle of Great Bridge against British Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Troops, who were recruited by the British and offered their freedom for fighting on the British side.
One black American who contributed mightily to the freedom of America from the British was Caesar Tarrant. An enslaved person from Hampton, Virginia, Tarrant was commissioned as a boat pilot by the Virginia State Navy.
He successfully defeated British ships attempting to provide supplies to their troops. Because of his heroism and effectiveness during battle, Tarrant received his freedom and his family was given 2,667 acres in the Virginia Military District in southeastern Ohio in recognition of their father’s service to the Virginia Navy.
There are countless stories about brave African Americans who laid down their lives for this country and we should celebrate them, along with the other brave soldiers, on July 4th and Memorial Day, by name. Our children need to be reminded, often, of the sacrifices their ancestors made to create a life here in America for them.
Although slavery was abolished by the end of the Civil War, African Americans were still not free. The next battle was fought in the courts. African Americans had been defined as 3/5 of a person in the U.S. Constitution which was ratified in 1789. We had a lot to undo. Through legislation, we were enslaved yet again, beginning with the Supreme Court Decision in Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896 which created “separate, but equal facilities for whites and blacks.” It would take 58 years to begin dismantling the laws that had re-enslaved African Americans. Brown v. Board of Education, 1954 was the landmark Supreme Court decision that made it illegal to have separate public schools for black children and white children.
More legislation followed that made it illegal to discriminate against African Americans at the polls, on transportation systems, in public accommodations, in the rental or purchase of housing and in employment.
As you can see, there is so much history about the African American experience that is invisible to many people and that’s why we must not confine Black History to the shortest month of the year, February, which occasionally is extended to 29 days in a leap year. New York State established the Amistad Commission in 2005 and its job was: “To survey and catalog the extent and breadth of education concerning the African slave trade, slavery in America, the vestiges of slavery in this country and the contributions of African-Americans to our society presently being incorporated into the curricula and textbooks and taught in the school systems of the state; and, to inventory those African slave trade, American slavery, or relevant African-American history memorials, exhibits and resources which should be incorporated into courses of study at educational institutions and schools throughout the state.”
The Amistad Commission’s report, recommendations and implementation for curricula of the history of African Americans has yet to be published seven years later. This is a great opportunity for our children to be fully educated. Call your NYS Legislators and ask them the status of the Amistad Commission, so our children can learn Black History every day, on every page of the history books. Other states have similar mandates, New Jersey is one state that is doing this right and has successfully integrated African American history into the curriculum K-12.
In the meantime, it is up to us to provide our children with the information that is their legacy, information that will make them proud and connected. “Red Tails,” the film about the Tuskegee Airmen is a step in the right direction and I applaud George Lucas for his generosity and his determination to bring our history to the big screen. So, let’s take the next step and make it Black History throughout the year by teaching our history every chance we get.