Thiele: Celebrating Black History Month Reminds Us of the Importance of Equal Rights for All

Imagine looking for a public restroom or water fountain to use and seeing a sign that said, “Colored” or “White” above it. Imagine the same disturbing scene when approaching a movie theater, swimming pool or public library. That was America not too long ago, and remembering the deeply racist era of segregation is vital to understanding our history. Although progress has been made, we are far from ending racism in America, and we must do more to ensure all Americans have equal access to good jobs and good schools, affordable housing and affordable health care. Celebrating Black History Month helps remind us of this importance.

During the civil rights movement, February was established as Black History Month and has been designated as such by every president since 1976, including President Obama, our first African-American president. It’s a time to celebrate achievements by African-Americans and recognize the central role men and women from New York played in shaping our history, persevering against all odds.

On March 23, 1870, one such New Yorker, Susan McKinney Steward, became the first African-American woman to enter the medical profession in New York and the third in the country. She graduated valedictorian from the New York Medical College for Women and soon became an incredibly successful physician, drawing in clientele across social barriers.1 What is especially exceptional about McKinney Steward, though, is the lasting positive impact she had on her community and society at large. Today, the Dr. Susan McKinney Secondary School of the Arts and the Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Nursing and Rehabilitation Center stand in Brooklyn as beacons of hope for a generation that continues the fight for equality.

Historically, New York has proven its place in the fight for equality. Harriet Tubman used the state as a major part of the Underground Railroad for over a decade, eventually settling in Auburn, N.Y., in 1857.2 The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League made their headquarters in New York State for many years, and the United Negro Improvement Association was founded in our great state. Today, New York leads the nation in African-American-owned businesses.3

Additionally, the New York State Assembly’s very own Shirley Chisholm was the first African-American woman elected to U.S. Congress. Chisholm, a Member of Assembly from 1964 to 1968, was born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents. In 1972, she became the first woman and first African-American candidate for the presidency. During her campaign, she survived three assassination attempts. Although she eventually lost the nomination, Chisholm said she ran for the office “in spite of hopeless odds... to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.” Chisholm, a strong advocate for improving education and health care, remained in Congress until 1982.4

As we celebrate Black History Month, we should also honor the memory of Nelson Mandela and ensure his legacy lives on and that his dream for a “democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities” is kept alive.5 His life was an inspiration to all and reminds us of the importance of forgiveness, perseverance, unity and equality in our everyday lives.

As a state, we’ve continuously been at the forefront of social progress, but great injustices still exist today. It’s crucial that we take time every year to honor the brave African-American women and men who overcame adversity and stifling racial intolerance to help shape our state and our country into more equal and more tolerant places. This February, we celebrate New Yorkers like McKinney Steward, Chisholm and Tubman, and we remember the contributions of Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and numerous others whose bravery defied structural inequalities. During Black History Month, we renew our fight for equality and justice for all.