Black History month programming shouldn’t feel like Jeopardy preparation.
Yes, it’s helpful to learn facts, dates and figures, but it’s important to be purposeful in selecting which content to amplify and why. The goal should be explaining important narratives and challenging problematic paradigms, not memorizing trivia.
While it’s impossible to sufficiently review Black history within 28 days, these four myth-busting facts provide examples of the type of fundamental historical information everyone should fully understand to enable more effective workplace conversations about race and racism.
1. Black History Did Not Start With Slavery
Unfortunately, the long sordid history of the African-American experience leads many to misconstrue the trans-Atlantic slave trade as the beginning of Black history.
In his Tedx Talk, African historian Emmanual Kulu, Jr. explains, “My father never allowed me to believe that the history of the Black man began with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He taught me about the ancient kings, queens, master builders, scholars.”
In fact, it’s ancient Africans who are credited with first estimating pi (for mathematical calculations), creating the 365 day calendar, developing rudimentary clocks and the first method of counting.
This American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology article highlights Africa’s role in medical advances. “Medical procedures performed in ancient Africa before they were performed in Europe include vaccination, autopsy, limb traction and broken bone setting, bullet removal, brain surgery, skin grafting, filling of dental cavities, installation of false teeth, what is now known as Caesarean section, anesthesia and tissue cauterization,” the article explains. “In addition, African cultures performed surgeries under antiseptic conditions universally when this concept was only emerging in Europe.”
When we only view “Black history” through the lens of exploitation and oppression, we minimize its import. Indeed, Kulu challenges us to expand our world view to appropriately acknowledge Africa’s relevance. “‘Mama Africa’ is the common ancestor of all humanity. Therefore, Black History is essentially everyone’s history,” he explains.
2. Changing Laws Did Not Magically Erase Discrimination
Many people assume that simply because laws changed at different points in history discrimination and oppression immediately ceased. That assumption is not just misguided and dangerous; it’s completely ahistorical. History is replete with examples of laws either unenforced, completely disregarded, subverted or even overruled by the Supreme Court, rendering them fairly meaningless in the day-to-day lives of most Black people. Throughout history white resistance was forceful and relentless and as a result, new legislation rarely if ever translated into swift and enduring justice.
Let’s examine a few tangible examples….
Arguably, many of the gains of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement merely realized rights that had already been granted on paper nearly a century earlier through the 14th and 15th amendments. Ratified in 1868, the 14th amendment granted citizenship to formerly enslaved people and also provided all citizens with “equal protection under the laws,” extending the provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states. Ratified in 1870, the 15th amendment granted Black men the right to vote, but localities quickly adopted tactics (poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy tests and violence and intimidation) designed to deny them that legal protection.
While the Supreme Court ruled school desegregation unconstitutional in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, stubborn white resistance effectively maintained segregation in many parts of the country until the protests of the mid-1960s. The Equal Justice Initiative reports, “In the five Deep South states, every single one of 1.4 million Black school children attended segregated schools until the fall of 1960. By the start of the 1964-65 school year, less than 3% of the South’s African American children attended school with white students, and in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina that number remained substantially below 1%.”
The wording of the 13th amendment—Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction—created a loophole that permitted a new iteration of slavery, at times even more brutal. After the passage of the 13th amendment, some states promptly passed “Black codes” which criminalized benign behaviors or trivial infractions thereby creating a legal mechanism for the continued enslavement of Black people. In his best-selling book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, Pulitzer Prize winning author Douglas Blackmon details the horrific system of convict leasing that served to enrich individuals, local municipalities and state governments as well as corporations for nearly 80 years.
3. Resistance and Protest Have Been Absolute Prerequisites For Racial Progress
While it’s certainly more romantic to believe that civil rights advances happened naturally simply with the passage of time because society just grew more moral, that world view is simply not supported in fact. These are the raw facts. Chattel slavery lasted 246 years. Jim Crow laws and rampant legalized, government-sanctioned racial subordination persisted for nearly a century after that. At no point did the white male power structure simply decide to dismantle systems of inequality because it was the right thing to do. Gains were only won through centuries of relentless, indefatigable resistance and protest—from slave rebellions to the Underground Railroad to Sit-Ins, Freedom Rides, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March from Selma to Montgomery marches and more.
Perhaps Dr. King best addressed the mythology of “racial progress through moral appeal” in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He wrote, “We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.” The letter continues, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
4. When Slavery Ended, Many Slave Owners Were Compensated. However, Slaves and Their Descendants Were Not.
On April 16, 1862 President Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, a law that prohibited slavery within the district and also compensated previous slaveholders an average of $300 (approximately $8,000 in 2021 dollars).
Across the country slaves themselves, their families and descendants received nothing. The simple truth is that at every progress juncture when government finally passed legislation to ostensibly rectify systems of oppression, mistreatment and outright theft, they conspicuously omitted any tangible remuneration. As a result, Black Americans were forced to begin the wealth building process with a centuries long deficit. It should surprise no one that median Black household wealth today is only about 10% that of median white households.
Speaking to a civil rights group at a 2021 event commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen spoke candidly about the legacy of the slain civil rights leader. “He knew that economic injustice was bound up in the larger injustice he fought against. From Reconstruction, to Jim Crow, to the present day, our economy has never worked fairly for Black Americans – or, really, for any American of color,” Yellen said.
The NPR article “Why The Racial Wealth Gap Is So Hard To Close” details economists’ findings on racial wealth disparities from 1860 to 2020. In the article Ellora Derenoncourt concludes, “If America really wanted a policy to completely close the racial wealth gap sooner rather than later, the only thing that would do it anytime soon is some sort of big wealth redistribution.”
While many will argue over the best way to provide remuneration or what the right number should be, can we all agree that it’s not $0?