Black History Month: A personal reflection
February is generally regarded as Black History Month. Most people are unaware of its origins or even why Black History Month exists. This article does not intend to research its origins in great detail or provide rationale for its designation; this article exists because of the profound influence key African-Americans have played in my life.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford announced the formal institution of Black History Month as part of the ongoing bicentennial festivities. Prior to that, Black History Month had been far more hit or miss…hits at historically black colleges and universities; misses elsewhere. Why February? Because both President Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were born in that month---Lincoln on the 12th; Douglass, the 14th.
But for me, Black History Month is far more personal, far more intimate. As a child of integration, I distinctly remember four key faces and how they helped me to see “race” as only a temporal shadow cloaking a much more important word: “human.” They helped me see myself as a mere thread within a much more colorful, beautiful, and rich fabric –the “human race.”
The first individual was Mr. Ed Little. He was my principal at Bell Street Junior High School. Mr. Little (or as others called him “Coach”) was a man of high, though not preachy, morality. He carried himself well and was a major positive agent in the successful integration of Laurens County School District 56.
Mr. Little was serious, but had an infectious smile and warm disposition…but you knew not to cross him. He saw all students as equals and treated everyone with respect, even when it was not returned. Mr. Little was only small in name; his legacy is large and lasting.
The second individual is Ms. Alvenes Barksdale, my middle school guidance counselor and later co-worker. Ms. Barksdale saw an awkward adolescent and worked painstakingly to provide me with confidence and career options even before “career counseling” was popular.
Ms. Barksdale could see the promise in a shy, small, four-eyed (black horn rim glasses), and unsure boy. She “mothered” me when I needed it and challenged me to excel…and put me in Algebra I even when I didn’t want to go in it. Ms. Barksdale painstakingly painted a picture for me of what could be rather than what was…if only I would accept the challenge and live up to the expectations needed to achieve it.
The third individual is Coach Harold Williams. Coach Williams was always larger than life to me. He was a hulk of a man whose very presence commanded respect. Nobody messed with Coach Williams but everyone knew him as an advocate for the underdog, the underprivileged, and the marginalized. But what I admired most about Coach Williams (which came only after we became colleagues at Clinton High School) was his ability to deal with adversity…in his case, cancer.
He taught math right beside my office. He had to undergo treatments and therapy for a most insidious disease…yet I recall his never missing a day. I could tell he felt horrible but he never whimpered or failed to report to work. He was faithful in the face of adversity and continued to think of others and his obligations to them when lesser men would have thought only of themselves.
The fourth individual is Ms. Hattie Suber. Ms. Suber was my US History teacher at Clinton High School. Ms. Suber loved history. She and June Adair actually loved their subject and worked to make the subject come to life…even for bored or apathetic mid-adolescents. Ms. Suber was tough. Her tests were tough, her expectations were high.
But she knew something too many people now don’t—the best things are the hardest. She had debates in class; she required us to memorize critical US government documents and the recite them…but more importantly, to understand them and to appreciate them.
Ms. Suber inspired me in many regards to go into education and to pursue social studies as my major. Ms. Suber taught me history was not a dead subject but one teeming with life…and for an individual to truly live, history must be understood by being involved in it…all of one’s life. It was not a spectator’s sport.
South Dakota is home to the Mount Rushmore National Memorial where the visages of four past presidents represent specific phases in American history…four key faces—(1) George Washington, (2) Thomas Jefferson, (3) Abraham Lincoln, and (4) Theodore Roosevelt. I’ve heard it is a beautiful tribute to our history and the indelible, incredible figures so represented.
But for me, my “Black History Mount Rushmore” is just as visible, viable and important. The power, presence, and purpose of the aforementioned, four figures are just as real, just as poignant, and just as palpable as the one in South Dakota.
These four—Little, Barksdale, Williams and Suber—are the embodiment of what was and remains good in our community. They are the torch bearers for what’s best in each of us...and, most importantly, what’s best in the human race.
May it be so!
(Dr. David O’Shields is superintendent of Laurens County School District 56.)