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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Charles Heston at 1963 March on Washington. (PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons)

Black history still matters to some


With apologies to Glenn Grothmann, the clueless West Bend senator who waged a war against Kwanzaa recently, it's Black History Month.

I guess he'll have to put up with it for the next few weeks instead of seven days.

Actually, Black History Month is another celebration created by African-Americans to satisfy a craving for recognition of the achievements of black people in U.S. history that have been undervalued or underpublicized in the American educational system.

Founded in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, it was Negro History Week before it was expanded to include the entire month of February. It was meant to celebrate a litany of inventors, scientists, lawyers, politicians, artists and other individuals who should be more well-known than they are.

I go back and forth with the idea of a Black History Month, which is celebrated in cities like Milwaukee in schools and community centers with a month long spotlights on people like W.E.B. Du Bois, Monroe Trotter, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Marian Anderson, Langston Hughes and others.

There are names on the Black History "Mt. Rushmore" that most Americans of all races recognize, but there are a legion of others who escape public attention until February rolls around.

In Milwaukee, there are Black History Month living legends like Vel Phillips and Reuben Harpole along with deceased greats like Felmers Chaney, Lloyd Barbee, O.C. White and others who have contributed to a rich local legacy. But again, their accomplishments deserve attention all year round, not just one month.

Jamila Benson is the program coordinator for the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum, 2620 W. Center St.

She said that the museum regularly holds Black History Month programs in February but over the years, the number of events has shrunk.

"There used to be something for Black History Month just about every day," said Benson, daughter of the museum's founder Clayborn Benson.

"These days, we don't have that many."

Benson said the museum does better business other months of the year by conducting tours at the site, where displays and exhibits of African-Americans in Wisconsin are featured along with photographs and artifacts collected by historians.

Ironically, Benson said the audiences for the tours were usually not what you'd expect in a city 40 percent African-American.

"We get a lot of requests for tours from people in the suburbs, school groups and other people who want to come and learn about the subject."

Milwaukee Public School students have taken the tours in previous years but Benson said the frequency of MPS visits had declined.

"Sometimes, it's like nobody's interested in their history anymore."

According to MPS spokesman Tony Tagliavia, a large number of Milwaukee Public Schools do regularly acknowledge the month through a variety of curriculum and events. Also, the district helps out by sending out advice on resources teachers can use to help students understand the significance behind the event.

The Wisconsin Black Historical Society Museum was the first place I learned that Wisconsin was a stop on the Underground Railroad and that many abolitionists in this area worked frantically to shelter runaway slaves. The runaway slave Joshua Glover sought asylum in Racine in 1854 and prompted a rescue from Milwaukee jail by a group of activists.

There have been African-Americans in Wisconsin since the 1800s, including slaves along with many free citizens who founded communities upstate.

Of course, Black History Month has been around for so many decades, it's possible a form of apathy has set in for many adults. In my circle of friends and acquaintances, Black History Month doesn't resonate like it used to in years past.

Perhaps the presence of a certain two-time elected African-American president of the United States has something to do with that.

Actually, I think President Barack Obama's historic accomplishments should spark more interest in black history, not less. He's following in the footsteps of black politicians like Hiram Revels, the first black elected to Congress during Reconstruction, or Edward Brooke, the first black in the U.S. Senate, or any of the numerous 'first black' elected officials as mayors and even governor since the modern civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Despite my own misgivings when February rolls around and I realize that the vast landscape of black achievement will once again get compressed, most years I still find something interesting to pique my interest.

I learn something new about a person or place connected with the past and feel more enlightened. I also wonder how it is the information has managed to elude me for so long.

Parents with children in Waukesha County used to call me to complain about a lack of Black History Month events in their community. But even some Milwaukee schools don't always provide Black History Month programs or events, particularly during budget-stressed times.

The fact is that some Americans don't really see Black History Month as all that big a deal at all; other than some re-broadcast of "Roots" or a week long roster of "black movies" from Hollywood, there doesn't seem much urgency to keep the month in the forefront.

Benson told me that despite the museum's scaling back from holding regular events in February – just one Black History Month is scheduled to date on Feb. 16 – she still thinks the month has value.

"I think Black History Month is still important; we still need it. People forget when it comes to black history, it's just not about slavery. There's a lot more to it."

I agree. Particularly this year after the second inauguration of Obama, a feat many older black Americans never thought they'd live to see. Of course, most never thought they'd witness the first one.

And make no doubt, what Black History Month is about is, first and foremost, American history, the part that has somehow been relegated to the back-burner except for this time of year.

I guess I should be satisfied the subject gets one month a year, even if it's shorter than all the rest.


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