Black History-Makers And Our Mandate

A Personal Perspective

Every Black History Month, we are reminded of how important African-Americans have been to the development of the United States.

Despite being brought here as slaves, Africans and their descendants have contributed tremendously to the success of and its superpower status. It is by far the most desirable immigrant destination as every year, tens of thousands of new immigrants arrive to pursue the American dream.

What started out as Negro History Week by Dr. Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) in 1926 would become Black History Month 50 years later in 1976. Because African Americans had been so deliberately left out of the history books, Dr. Woodson took it upon himself to teach us — and everyone else who cares to know – that indeed, we too have contributed to the United States.

Contrary to what the slave masters and political enforcers wanted the world to know about us, as we gained freedom, we would also contribute with our intellect and talents in engineering, research and development, medicine, education, the arts, literature, maritime exploits….

Booker T. Washington founded a university (Tuskegee Institute, now known as Tuskegee University) and George Washington Carver created farming methods such as crop rotation and fallow technique that are still in practice today by farmers all over the world. His inventions are too numerous to list here; and his food and household products developed in his lab are still with us today. A small sampling would include buttermilk, milk flakes, mayonnaise, shoe polish, talcum powder and the ever famous peanut butter.

In more contemporary times, Queens has also had its share of luminaries who have contributed to the history of our people. Ralph Bunche (1903-1971) a diplomat, was the “first person of color” to win the Nobel Peace Prize (in 1950 for mediations he conducted in the 1940s in Palestine). A Harvard-educated political scientist, Bunche received the Medal of Freedom from President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Bunche, who lived in Kew Gardens, was also a professor at Howard University. About eight years ago, the Queens Museum housed a magnificent exhibition of Bunche’s life and career – including his Nobel Prize and briefcase. This exhibition is a must-see if it ever returns.

Roy Wilkins (1901-1981) was executive director of the NAACP and an unapologetic Civil Rights activist, who received the Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon B. Johnson. Wilkins will long be remembered in our community, thanks in large measure to the Southeast Queens park named in his honor.

Politicians such as Archie Spigner, who became the first African-American Councilmember from Queens and Andrew Jenkins, who created and served the old 10th Senate District have also added to our rich legacy. Guy R. Brewer (1904-1978) was also among the first African-Americans elected to public office in Queens (New York State Assembly – 1969 to 1978); and served as the Assembly’s first majority whip of color. Brewer will long be remembered not only for his public service and the boulevard named in his honor, but for the Democratic Club he co-founded. The United Democratic Club was renamed the Guy R. Brewer United Democratic Club and remains one of the largest political clubs in the borough and city.

Black History isn’t just about a past where accomplishing great things was done against much greater odds. Black History is also about what we are doing right now to add to our rich heritage. We cannot afford to rest on our laurels and celebrate the greats of a painful past, we must add to the legacy so that 50 or 100 years from now, we, and our era will also be celebrated. It behooves all of us to leave something good behind for those who will come after us.

Here’s to the past, the present and the future. Here’s to Black History Month!

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