Published On: Fri, Feb 24th, 2017

It’s Past Time for us to Recognize That Black History is American History

The student’s eyes opened wide when I told her there was a time – not too long ago – when black teachers in the Palm Beach County school system did not earn the same salaries as their white counterparts.

As she listened more, she learned that it was a man from Delray Beach – retired principal C. Spencer Pompey – who was instrumental in changing that.

Earlier this week, I reminded them that the year was 1942, when 107 black school teachers were angry because they did not, unlike their white peers, receive a $25-a-month raise that year.

The black teachers reached out to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for help and their general council, “a tall, lanky fellow by the name of Thurgood Marshall met with us,” Mr. Pompey recalled.

Marshall won the case, which became a landmark class-action lawsuit. He used that precedent 12 years later when he argued the Brown vs. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregated schools.

He was later was appointed to the US Supreme Court, where he served for 24 years until he retired in 1991.

That was one of the local stories that were recounted in schools across the district this month in observance of Black History Month, an observance that stretches back to the early 20th century, and remains relevant today. It began in the 1920s as Negro History Week and later evolved into Black History Month.

Though it is hard for many to fathom, Black history is American history.

And while Black history in the past has often been under-emphasized in classrooms and in our nation’s consciousness, some educators have taken measures to host special events and incorporate lessons on the accomplishments of blacks.

Some schools observed with performances and poetry readings, celebrated Black scientists and mathematicians and one created a wax museum, which highlighted important figures in Black history.

At Plumosa School of the Arts in Delray Beach, fourth and fifth grade students researched important figures in Black history, and hosted a wax museum for students, community members and parents.

Orchard View Elementary students held a Celebration of Scientists and Mathematicians, followed by a presentation of science fair projects and hands-on science demonstrations.

Students at Pine Grove Elementary, Village Academy and Daughter of Zion got to spend a day onboard Black History 365, an interactive traveling museum.  Through a collaborative partnership with the Spady Museum, Estella’s Brilliant Bus, the KOP Mentoring Network outfitted the bus with artifacts and memorabilia to show the students some of the inventions by blacks.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks may be the most recognized names during Black History Month observances, and rightly so, but they are far from being alone when it comes to important and meaningful contributions of black Americans.

Through artifacts and printed documents, the docents showed the students an emerging American economy built on the backs of black men, women and children.

They learned of great American inventors such as Thomas Edison. But they also learned of the ingenuity of Lewis Latimer who invented the filament that made Edison’s light possible.

They learned of Benjamin Banneker, the surveyor who designed Washington, D.C., Norbet Rilleux who refined sugar, Granville T. Woods, the inventor of the steam boiler and Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the first surgeon to operate on the human heart.

They also heard from some local living legends whose contributions improved life for today’s blacks. For example, students at Pine Grove heard from Yvonne Odom, a retired educator who in 1961 was the first black student to attend Seacrest High. Seacrest High was later merged with Carver High to become Atlantic High School. By 1961 public schools were trying to meet the demands of a 1954 Supreme Court decision that said separate but equal schools were inherently unequal.

And Alfred “Zack” Straghn shared with students at Daughter of Zion some memories of what it was like when he fought to integrate the public beach in Delray Beach.

He also told them how he and others fought to get the first blacks hired on the police force.

I have been involved in Black History observances dating back several years, and I marvel how much I am still learning every year as I continue my research.

There are those who maintain that there need to be more than one month to honor achievements of blacks. And that criticism is largely justified. We should all take a little time — in February and beyond — to learn about our country and the people who made it great.

There is power in knowledge. The more we know, the more we realize that we have accomplished so much together. But there is more yet to learn.

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