Dean's Discourse - February

Department(s):

The Business School

When I was a local church pastor, each February, I preached a sermon series in honor of Black History Month. One Sunday in February after worship, I overheard two of my elderly congregants speaking. One woman said, “Why do we observe Black History Month? Why don’t we observe White History Month?” I was stunned by the remark, but muttered under my breath, “Because we’re always observing White history.” 

History is replete with the stories of people, mostly men of European descent, who have achieved great accomplishments in the making of the United States of America. But the stories of those who have been marginalized are lesser known. This was a motivation for Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the scholar credited with the establishment of what was initially observed as Black History Week in 1926 to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Woodson recognized that scholarly academies such as the American Historical Association were not interested in Black history. He concluded that the only alternative “was to create a separate, alternative institutional structure which would facilitate the researching, writing, and publishing of the history of the Negro in America.”[1]Woodson, along with William Hartgrove, George Cleveland Hall, A. L. Jackson, and James E. Stamps would establish the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, which is now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, in September 1915. The next year, he published the Journal of Negro History. Through his efforts, Woodson sought to provide resources for those who educated black children, believing that “the world [needed to] see the Negro as a participant rather than a lay figure in history.”[2]

More than one hundred years later, the US still grapples with Black History and its inclusion in the narrative of this country, which demonstrates the continuing need for Black History Month. Yet, I am less interested in turning the observance into a “Who’s Who” of notables, as is often done. I am more compelled by efforts that address erroneous or misleading historical narratives that have eliminated or minimized the contributions of people of African descent. Consider, for example, the origins of rice in the US. “The conventional interpretation of rice history in the Americas assigns Europeans the role of ingeniously adapting a crop of Asian origin to New World conditions.” Such history was rooted in racial bias that deemed enslaved Africans as the manual labor fueling an economic system with no appreciation or recognition of their inherent skills. However, the research of Peter Wood demonstrated that Carolina slaves played an active role in developing the rice economy and Daniel Littlefield’s research noted that Carolina slaves possessed prior experience with the crop’s cultivation in West Africa.[3]

This is but one example of a pervasive problem. Because of bias, prejudice, and at times, exploitative practices, people of African descent were not credited with the innovative advances they helped to bring about. Benjamin Bradley invented the first steam engine powerful enough to run a war ship. However, “patents were not issued to slaves, nor free Negroes (in many instances) at that time because the Negro was not legally a United States citizen.”[4] Eli Whitney is credited for having invented the Cotton Gin, a labor-saving device that separated cotton from its seeds, thus creating an economic boom for the southern United States and prolonging the institution of slavery. Credit notwithstanding, there is evidence that Whitney’s design was based on a device developed by enslaved people on the Georgia plantation of Catharine Greene.[5]  Greene was not credited and the names of the enslaved are lost to history. James Marion Sims is credited as being the “father of modern gynecology,”[6] because he pioneered a surgical technique to repair a complication in childbirth by experimenting on enslaved African American women. The women were exploited to ensure that they could reproduce, as their ability to procreate made them more valuable as commodities.

Such narratives are difficult to read and hear because of the painful legacy of enslavement and the systemic racism that has dogged African Americans since first arriving to the colonies in 1619. Yet, this history – Black History – is American History and our ability to truly thrive and flourish as a nation is enhanced when we are able to embrace the stories of all who call this land home. So, I encourage you to learn this history, both the good and the bad, because as Woodson noted, African Americans have played a central role in the advancement of the United States of America.

Blessings,

Dean Debora Jackson
 


[1] Darlene Clark Hine. “Carter G. Woodson, White Philanthropy and Negro Historiography.” The History Teacher, vol. 19, no. 3, 1986, 406. JSTORhttps://doi.org/10.2307/493381. Accessed February 19, 2024.

[2] Ibid, 408.

[3] Judith A. Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 161.

[4] Katz, William. “Another Slave Freed.” The Journal of Negro History, vol. 50, no. 2, 1965, pp. 121–23, https://doi.org/10.2307/2715998.

[5] Robert Taylor, “Black History Journal.” Washington Informer, March 2009, p. 6. ProQuesthttp://ezproxy.wpi.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/black-history-journal/docview/367794395/se-2.

[6] Brynn Holland “The ‘Father of Modern Gynecology’ Performed Shocking Experiments on Slaves,” History.com, December 4, 2018, https://www.history.com/news/the-father-of-modern-gynecology-performed-shocking-experiments-on-slaves, Accessed February 19, 2024.