The month of February is designated as Black, or African American, History month.
As I reflect on my first awareness of black contributions to America, I am reminded of Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson (1875-1950), considered the “Father of Black History,” who wanted to incorporate the accomplishments of “colored” or “Negro” Americans into the curricula of schools across the country. In 1922, he wrote “The Negro in Our History.” In 1926, to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, Woodson proposed a week of celebration of the history of the American Negro in the United States.
This began the annual Black History Week in many schools in this country. In 1976, during the celebration of America’s Bicentennial, the U.S. government officially expanded Black History Week to Black History Month.
With this acknowledgement by President Gerald R. Ford and the U.S. government, black or African Americans were viewed in a way previously denied and previously unknown to a vast majority of Americans.
The inclusion of all ethnicities and their contributions is vital to any society. We, as a society, tend to acknowledge the major contributions; however, the road to higher heights is paved with small, individual stones of achievement never recorded or recognized.
Like Woodson, the son of freed slaves, I am a descendant of a freed slave, Joseph Henry Jenkins. He was born in Culpepper, Va., sold to the Jenkins family of Staunton, Va., and shipped to a family member (a staunch abolitionist) in Madison, Ind. It was during this time, as the houseboy for Richard Jenkins, M.D., that my great-grandfather learned to read, write and “cipher.” During this time, the seed of education was implanted.
After leaving Madison in 1875, he crossed the Ohio River at Milton, Ky., and worked his way to New Castle, Ky., where he met and married my great-grandmother, Ella Letitia Gullion.
To this union was born seven children — my grandmother, Elizabeth, being the eldest girl.
Education was fostered within the Jenkins household and the Jenkins children. With the exception of one son, who died during a typhoid outbreak, all of the children graduated from Kentucky Normal School in Frankfort — today known as Kentucky State University. Education was the key to their upward mobility during a period in American history when “coloreds” were relegated to menial jobs.
Joseph and Ella Jenkins’ children produced 16 grandchildren, my mother among them. Of those 16 grandchildren, all are college graduates. From their youth, they were instilled with the value and importance of education.
The accolades given to well-known people who have achieved great things is admirable. The accolades not given to those who in whatever way paved the way must also be given.
I pay homage to those within my family who laid the foundation for my desire to succeed through education.
Opening doors to new experiences and a deeper appreciation for the contributions of those who’ve preceded me is to be celebrated. This celebration of the contributions of black Americans is not to be relegated to one week or one month. It is to be celebrated continuously, as should the accomplishments of all ethnicities of which we all are a part, no matter how much or how little.
John W. Roberts, Ed.D., is associate professor of English at Ivy Tech Community College-Columbus/Franklin. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.