Americans have been celebrating Black History Month each February since 1976. In a message issued on February 10 of that year, President Gerald Ford called upon his fellow citizens to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Black History Month Is for Everyone
For the past 30 years, I’ve had the distinction of being the first in just about every career position I have held: the first female, the first African American, the youngest or some combination of all three. While I never really thought of myself as a trailblazer, I’ve created programs, led initiatives and mentored others to move the needle forward not for self-glory, but to collectively move humanity forward.
Moving forward also means reflecting on the past. Black History Month provides all Americans with an opportunity to celebrate the numerous contributions of African Americans to society.
Centuries of Contributions from African Americans
As Best Life has documented, African American contributions to society have spanned centuries. Benjamin Banneker’s contributions to astronomy and mathematics led to the first survey setting the original borders of the District of Columbia in 1791.
George Washington Carver’s scientific contributions in the late 1800s to social chemistry, crop rotation, and cotton and peanut production revolutionized agricultural technology. Madam C.J. Walker’s achievements as an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and political and social activist affected millions, and she became the first African-American female self-made millionaire in America.
In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, becoming the first African American in modern history to play baseball in the formerly all-white major leagues. And in 1964, Sidney Poitier made history when he became the first African American to win an Oscar in the Best Actor category for his portrayal of handyman Homer Smith in the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field.”
African American Achievements Are Timeless
African American achievements are inspirational. Among the most notable recently was the 2020 historic election of Kamala Harris as vice president. She is the first woman and the first person of both South Asian and African American descent to reach that high office.
There’s also Stacy Abrams, who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in promoting voting rights via Fair Fight in Georgia and throughout the United States. Abrams helped elect Raphael Warnock as the first African American Senator from Georgia. Warnock served as the Pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the same church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached numerous times.
Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett is a well-known name in the health community as a member of the research team that developed the first vaccine against the coronavirus. As the number of coronavirus deaths in the U.S. topped 460,000, Dr. Anthony Fauci made clear the contributions of African-Americans to developing the vaccine: “So, the first thing you might want to say to my African American brothers and sisters is that the vaccine that you’re going to be taking was developed by an African American woman…..And that is just a fact.”
There are also notable African American firsts at our university, including:
- Chief of Staff Dr. Gwen Hall
- Dr. Marie Gould Harper, Ph.D., CPC, the first African American Dean of the Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business
- Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr., the first Program Manager for Transportation Management and Supply Chain Management
I am also proud to be the first African American female professor in the Transportation and Logistics Department. These are just a few of the countless contributions at our university.
President Biden’s Cabinet Includes African Americans
President Biden has underscored the contributions of African Americans in his newly formed Cabinet and White House Staff. Those staff members include Marcia Fudge as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
President Biden’s Historic 2021 National Proclamation on Black History Month
President Biden’s 2021 National Proclamation on Black History Month is historic because it took three bold steps, including a call to action, federal program implementation, and an acknowledgment of racial inequities:
- Step 1: Biden’s call to action “calls upon public officials, educators, librarians, and all the people of the United States to observe this month with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities.”
- Step 2: Biden announced the implementation of federal programs designed to achieve racial justice and equity nationwide through the first “whole‑government approach to advancing racial justice and equity across our Administration — in health care, education, housing, our economy, our justice system, and in our electoral process.”
- Step 3: Biden acknowledged racial inequities: “It is long past time to confront deep racial inequities and the systemic racism that continue to plague our Nation. A knee to the neck of justice opened the eyes of millions of Americans and launched a summer of protest and stirred the Nation’s conscience.”
It’s my sincere wish that while I’ve held the distinction of being the first in just about every career position I’ve held, I won’t be the last. Hopefully, we’ll evolve to a society where “firsts” by people of all racial, gender, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds become commonplace and no longer noteworthy. That will truly be not just Black history, but recognition of the phenomenal achievements interwoven into the very fabric of American history.