Growing up, I loved celebrating a special holiday in February. That’s right, I could hardly wait for what was then “Negro History Week.”
In 1926, Dr. Carter G. Woodson declared the second week of February time to celebrate the contributions made by African Americans. He chose this week because of the birthdays of two men important to the African American history: President Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and author and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14).
I grew up learning about ordinary people who did extraordinary things, many women. They worked under daunting conditions of slavery, segregation, war, discrimination, and racism. We learned about Harriett Tubman and Sojourner Truth and their fight for freedom and women’s rights.
We would sing in our best 5th-grade operatic voices arias that Marian Anderson performed to segregated audiences. In 1939, Anderson was not allowed to sing to an integrated audience in Constitutional Hall in Washington, D.C.
Yet, later, with the world watching, she sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. With the backing of Eleanor Roosevelt and President Franklin Roosevelt, she reached an integrated crowd of more than 75,000.
In 1976 came Black History Month
In 1976, 50 years later, President Gerald Ford declared February “Black History Month.” He urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
This February, I’m reflecting on how much time has passed between these touchstones for African Americans and women.
A glutton for punishment, I watched the Academy Awards knowing there were no female directors and only one African descent actor–Cynthia Erivo–nominated for an award. Erivo portrayed Harriet Tubman in the movie “Harriet,” and she did not win.
But the situation reminded me of the 1940s story of Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to receive an Oscar. Though she accepted a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as “Mammy” in “Gone With the Wind,” she couldn’t sit with the other actors. McDaniel sat at a corner table because of the hotel’s no blacks policy.
Find some time this February to do as President Ford suggested–honor and celebrate.
As you prepare for Women of the ELCA Bold Women’s Day, remember that our accomplishments and legacy are only alive when we tell the story.
Valora K Starr is director for discipleship for Women of the ELCA.