When I was growing up in Xenia there was no such thing as Black History Month because the basic attitude about black history was that it was chock full of painful subjects that should be left alone. Slavery, lynchings, segregation, Jim Crow was still the law of the land in the South, and quiet as it was kept, in much of the North in a less formal manner. The accomplishments and experiences of black people had not been studied and made part of the academic records at that point much beyond those few distasteful subjects.
I had never seen a “white only” or “colored only” sign until I was at one of my research residences at the Library of Congress in 2002. I went to the Smithsonian Museum where they had an exhibit called “From field to Factory.” It was about the black diaspora when so many black people left the agricultural South and its Jim Crow practices to come North in hopes of a better life. Most of them found work in factories.
Halfway through the enormous exhibit there was suddenly a plexiglass barrier blocking the way. There were two doorways in the barrier, over one doorway was a sign that said “White Only”, over the other door was a sign that said “ Colored Only.” You could not get to the exhibit without choosing one of those doors. I stood there for a good twenty minutes trying to decide which one to take. You could tell the signs were authentic, that each of them actually had hung in a business or restaurant or bathroom somewhere for a long time.
My first impulse was to go through the “White Only” doorway to spite whoever made the sign. But, I thought, would that deny my race? I finally went through the “Colored Only” sign door, thinking about all the people who had not had a choice and how America has never really dealt with that.
I really wanted to grab a clipboard from somewhere and interview every person who came through one of the doorways to see what door they chose and why, but I thought the security at the Smithsonian would probably take a dim view of that since I had no authority to do so. I did not want to embarrass myself and the institutions funding my research fellowship at the LOC by getting thrown out of the museum. As a reflective exercise Imagine which door you would have chosen at the museum, and why.
Although historian Carter G. Woodson had proposed a black history week in the 1920’s, Black History Month was not nationally established until Gerald Ford did so in 1976. We had been through the turmoil of most of the Civil Rights Movement by then, Jim Crow had been made illegal by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That changed what people could legally do, but, of course, did not necessarily change their thinking.
So now that the month is upon us, we will see articles, exhibits, commemorations, lessons in many schools about the black experience in America. We will be informed about black accomplishments, black struggles, continuing racism, etc. I am sure some people will be thoroughly tired of hearing about black folk by February 29th. Yes, we get an extra day this year.
I hope you can take a step back and approach the month from the point of view of learning something new that just happens to have been left out of many of the history books. Black History, like all history, is about people, and people are interesting.
Cookie Newsom is a Greene County resident and guest columnist.