Peaked by election of President Barack Obama
by Lesley R. Chinn
This year, Black History Month is celebrated on the heels of an historic inauguration of the nation’s first Black President Barack Obama.
While there has been a “pinned-up” interest in Black History for a long time, Cynthia Lowery Morris, executive director of the Washington, D.C.- based African-American Experience Fund (AAEF) of the National Park Foundation (NPF), hopes that with Obama’s historic election and inauguration, people will start to pay more attention.
Inviting the Tuskegee Airmen and members of the Little Rock Nine group to be special guests at the inauguration, “helps connect the dots for kids so that they understand that it is just not about Obama,” Lowery Morris stated. “President Obama has done a good job of acknowledging the trailblazers and the people who have made the way for him. Hopefully, that is sinking in with some of our younger people.”
The Little Rock Nine was a group of Black students who integrated Central High School in 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas, three years after the U.S. Supreme court case Brown vs. Board of Education ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional. The Tuskegee Airmen are a group of Black pilots who flew with distinction during World War II as the 332nd Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps.
Author, historian and professor Timuel Black said the dramatic ascendancy of President Obama has promoted interest not only in his background, but also in the background of other prominent African- Americans, like members of the Tuskegee Airmen and the Little Rock Nine. “Obama is living proof that you can rise to the top, but you have to be prepared,” he said.
According to a Kelton Research study conducted recently on behalf of the AAEF of the NFP, a large percentage of Americans do not know about Black contributions to U.S. History. While a study of more than 1,000 respondents revealed their lack of knowledge, it also showed that a percentage of Americans were interested in gaining more information.
According to the study, 32 percent of the respondents surveyed weren’t aware of Brown vs. Board of Education, nor the significance of this landmark case. Only 14 percent of the respondents correctly identified Carter G. Woodson as the founder of Black History Month (formerly Negro History Week) while 29 percent thought Black History Month’s founder was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
About 61 percent of the respondents said they would like to know more about Black History. Other Americans have visited on the average of one historical site per year, according to the survey, in order to increase their knowledge about Black History facts. The number tends to increase in adults under aged 30, who have visited on an average of seven historical sites in the past five years.
While fifty-seven percent of the respondents said they didn’t receive a comprehensive overview of Black History in school, Lowery Morris added more education is needed. “A lot of it is not being taught in the schools as part of the curriculum. If you talk about World War II and you don’t talk about the Tuskegee Airmen, then you’ve missed a huge component. Unfortunately, so much of our history is invisible and people just don’t even think about it,” she stated. Recollecting historic moments such as when Frederick Douglas persuaded President Abraham Lincoln to free the slaves and encouraged them to join the Union Army during the Civil War, Black mentioned these and other contributions should not be ignored. “How can you teach American history without dealing with the slave period or the conditions of Africans before they were snatched off from Africa?,” he asked.
Other statistics are even more alarming. According to an article in the Washington Post three years ago, a significant number of junior high school students believed Dr. King was instrumental in freeing the slaves, Lowery Morris said. “That’s kind of scary, isn’t it? We’re not doing a very good job. We need to figure out a way to teach [Black History] in our schools and in our community projects,” she said.
About 92 percent of those surveyed indicated they believe the emphasis on teaching Black History should be given the same attention as other subjects taught in school.
Although the late State Sen. William “Bill” Shaw was instrumental in passing legislation to ensure that Black History was taught in the schools, Maureen Forte, a fifth grade teacher at Sawyer Elementary School, said the measure has not been enforced. She agrees a greater emphasis should be placed on teaching Black History outside of the classroom.
Expressing pride in her son who was the only first grader in his class to understand the basic concept of a law enacted in 1787 and later challenged in 1856, which classified Black people as three-fifths of a person, Lowery Morris said, “Sometimes we just have to take it upon ourselves to see to it that they get that exposure.”