Over the past 35 years, February has become synonymous with a national celebration of the African-American men and women who overcame monumental adversity to bring greater equality to our country. What began as Negro History Week in 1926 grew into a four-week-long observation of black history on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Now, throughout February, we celebrate the contributions of courageous leaders like Harriet Tubman, who fought against racial intolerance, and our president, Barack Obama, who has provided hope and inspiration to many.
For more than a decade, Tubman risked life and limb leading escaped slaves from the embattled South to the free North, using a network of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. And New York’s role was particularly significant in the heroic migrations, hosting many of the safe houses and offering passage and refuge to thousands of escaped slaves through 1865, when slavery was finally abolished.
In fact, New York has consistently led the way in the quest for racial equality. Our great state housed the NAACP and National Urban League headquarters for years; saw the foundation of the groundbreaking United Negro Improvement Association; hosted one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most notable speeches, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”; and leads the nation in African-American-owned businesses.
While we’re familiar with the enormous contributions of fearless, forward-thinking leaders like Tubman, Dr. King, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, there are many others who helped ensure that African-Americans now enjoy more opportunities than ever before.
George Washington Carver was born into slavery, but was rescued from Confederate soldiers when he was an infant. Growing up cultivating a career in science, Carver became one of the most influential agricultural chemists of his generation. Carver’s research led to the development of crop-rotation methods for conserving nutrients in soil, which greatly benefited farmers.3
The turn of the 20th century saw countless influential civil rights advocates voicing their concerns and fighting tirelessly for the equal rights of African-Americans. Editor and co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, exposed the horrible truths behind lynching practices and the brutal treatment of African-Americans across the nation. Wells-Barnett’s advocacy was instrumental in paving the way for future black women’s movements.4
This month, as we look back on the great men and women who exemplified what it is to be an American, it’s not enough to appreciate their accomplishments. Instead, we should learn from them, follow their lead, and continue to move our country forward.
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, www.freedomcenter.org/underground-railroad/history/routes/
U.S. Census Bureau, www.census.gov/econ/sbo/get07sof.html?3
3 Invent Now Hall of Fame, www.invent.org/hall_of_fame/30.html
4 National Park Service, www.nps.gov/nr/travel/civilrights/il2.htm