Celebrating the many accomplishments of Africans Americans
The name Claudette Colvin is essentially unknown among many if not most Americans. But historians, especially African American historians, know it as well as the name of the universally praised Rosa Parks. Months before Mrs. Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, Miss Colvin also refused. But she did not go quietly. Instead, she forced the bus driver to call the police. The 15-year-old Miss Colvin was forcibly arrested and jailed. For years, her role in the Civil Rights struggle went untold because Mrs. Parks, officials felt, was a better representative of the struggle.
Still, Miss Colvin’s backseat in history is becoming more well known in American history books. Her story, though important, only gained a brighter illumination when Black History Month began being officially celebrated in 1976. But well before 1976, said Devon Wright, Africana Studies professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, Black History’s roots had already sprouted.
“Carter G. Woodson,” said Wright, “is the father of Black History.” Woodson, one of the first African American graduates from both the University of Chicago and Harvard, where he earned a Ph.D., saw how Black people were either afterthoughts or completely absent in American History books despite the role they played in building the country.
Black History Month, celebrated each February, acknowledges contributions African Americans have made to the nation for more than 400 years. Their mark has been made in the arts, sciences, humanities and more, though more often than not, they have been footnoted and marginalized rather than celebrated.
The first enslaved Africans to come to the country were brought here against their will in 1619. The year officially marks the start of the slave trade to the Western Hemisphere. For all but a few years, until they were officially emancipated in 1863, these men and women were enslaved and doing the work, especially in the South, that made that region the most prosperous part of the nation. In fact, up to the Civil War, Mississippi was the most prosperous state in the country. It’s wealth, primarily agriculture and especially cotton, was generated by enslaved labor.
But enslaved Americans did more than work the fields. They also were the muscle that built many American landmarks. “I wake up every day in a house built by slaves,” said former First Lady Michelle Obama. The White House is one of a number of iconic American structures built by the labor of the enslaved. The U.S. Capitol, including the Statue of Freedom that sits atop it, was also the work of enslaved labor.
The celebration of Black History month, said Wright, has been a cultural blessing to the nation. “The country has benefitted greatly by appreciating our ethnic differences,” he said. “Black humanity has not been recognized. It has been systematically marginalized.”
In Colorado, African Americans have made their mark, though not one that necessarily rings nearly as loud as those of White Coloradans. But, still, one that ranks with similar importance.
James P. Beckwourth, a former enslaved man, was an explorer, fur trader, Army scout and entrepreneur. Beckwourth is credited as the founder of Pueblo, Colorado. He, along with others, established a trading post in Pueblo in 1842. The city would grow around it.
Madame C.J. Walker, thought to be the first African American female millionaire in America, founded, developed, and marketed a line of beauty products specifically for African American women when she lived in Denver in the early 20th Century.
Wellington Webb was Denver’s first-ever African American Mayor. Webb is credited with guiding Denver through one of the most remarkable periods of its history. Webb was the city’s chief executive when Denver International Airport was opened. He was also Mayor when the city’s main public library opened its doors and was at the helm when the Pepsi Center was christened.
The stories of Beckwourth, Walker, Webb and scores of other African Americans who made significant contributions to Colorado are on display at Denver’s Black American West Museum at 3091 California Street.
Wright said the Africana Studies program at MSUD benefits all students. It is one, he said, “where most of my students have been White.” And without exception, the question he can bank on each semester is, ‘If we have Black History Month, how come we don’t have White History Month?’
Wright, a native Canadian who came to Denver and Colorado via teaching stints in Florida, said the question is asked quite innocently. He tries to explain that American history has traditionally been taught as “very White and Euro-centric,” and omits the contributions of African Americans. This history had mostly often fallen on the shoulders of HBCU, Historically Black Colleges and University. Pennsylvania’s Cheney University was the country’s first HBCU, opening in 1837.
The MSUD professor said the presidency of Donald Trump has caused “some resistance” to the idea of dedicating an entire month as well as college courses to the study of African American history. But the reality is, American history is incomplete without acknowledging African Americans. It, too, is American history. But too many people still continue to ask, ‘Why can’t you get over it (slavery)?’ “I might tell them, ‘When America gets over the Confederate states of America.’”
Wright plans to place a special emphasis on January 6, 2021, in future classes. The date, he said, is “when the U.S. Capitol was overrun…the building that slaves built.” “I will tell them, ‘if you want to understand why January 6th happened, it would behoove you to take Black, Latino and women’s studies classes, or you will have more January sixths.”
Noted African American writer and essayist, James Baldwin, summed up the then blank pages devoted to the lives of African Americans from Paris, the city where he had fled to both as an act of defiance and cultural survival. “When I was going to school,” said Baldwin, “I began to be bugged by the teaching of American history because it seemed that that history had been taught without cognizance of my presence.”