February may be the shortest month of the year, but it is an important one. We set aside this month near the beginning of the year to celebrate Black History Month. By the way, we celebrate Black Catholic History Month in November.
During this month we learn about and honor the important events and people that have shaped African-American history. In 1926, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the son of former slaves who earned a doctorate degree from Harvard University, established “Negro History Week.” Eventually, it grew into the month-long celebration we all know.
When we say Black History, most people think of George Washington Carver, a former slave and scientist who discovered more than 320 uses for the peanut; or Frederick Douglass, the great orator and abolitionist; or Harriet Tubman, who led countless slaves to freedom right here through Maryland via the “Undergound Railroad”; or Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the great civil rights activist. But, there are many, many others who have made their mark in history.
Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, who was born in Cuba to Haitian parents, was the foundress of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, an order established in Baltimore to educate black children.
Pierre Toussaint, who lived from 1766 to 1853, was an immigrant from Haiti who was a hairdresser in New York. He was well known for his kindness. He was able to buy freedom for his enslaved sister and his future wife. He gave away most of his money to poor people, other charities, and an orphanage and school for black children. His cause for canonization is being studied by the Vatican, and he might become the first African-American saint.
There were also at least three popes who were black. Pope Victor was elected pope less than 200 years after Jesus ascended into heaven. Victor determined the formula for calculating the celebration of Easter, and he made Latin the official language of the Catholic Church. Pope Militiades was pope for only three years – 311 to 314 – but he signed an agreement with Emperor Constantine, making Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. Pope Gelasius reigned from 492 to 496. He helped Romans during a severe famine, wrote a book of hymns, and outlined Church teaching on the Eucharist. All three black popes were later declared saints.
Rosa Parks was an African-American seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a crowded Montgomery, Alabama, bus. Her actions led to a boycott of Montgomery buses and an eventual change in the way black people were treated on public transportation there.
Thurgood Marshall – after whom the airport on Baltimore is named – was a civil rights lawyer. He argued more than 30 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and won 29 of them. His most important case, 1954’s Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education, ended segregation in public schools. He later became the first African-American Supreme Court justice.
The “Little Rock Nine” were the first African-American students to attend an all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. They went to school despite death threats and physical assaults and verbal abuse. President Dwight Eisenhower had soldiers go to the school so the children could be safe as they learned.
Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the son of free blacks in Virginia, was elected the first president of Liberia in Africa in 1847.
William Wells Brown, a former slave, wrote the first novel published in the United States by a black American.
John Mercer Langston, a former slave, was elected clerk of Brownhelm Township in Ohio in 1855, becoming the first African-American to win an elective political office in the United States. In 1870, Joseph Hayne Rainey of South Carolina was the first African American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Also that year, Hiram R. Revels of Mississippi was the first African-American elected to the U.S. Senate.
Madame C.J. Walker developed and marketed a way to straighten curly hair in 1905. Her product was so popular that she became the first black female millionaire in the United States. Seventeen years later, Bessie Coleman became the country’s first African-American female pilot.
In 1930, Benjamin Oliver Davis, was named the first black colonel in the U.S. Army, and 10 years later, he became the Army’s first African-American general.
It is nearly impossible to exhaust the list of great people of color who have made their marks on history or who have bettered the lives of all of us. February is a start – but should not be the end – of learning about black history.