The United States has recognized black history annually since February 12, 1926, first as “Negro History Week” and later as “Black History Month.” The observance was created by noted Harvard scholar and historian Dr. Carter C. Woodson, who chose the month of February to honor the birthdays of both Frederick Douglass (February 14) and Abraham Lincoln (February 12). Woodson felt that these two men had done much to advance the cause of Africans in America.
Understanding the inception of the observance is the easy part. The challenge remains in helping people, from within and outside of the African-American community, understand the continued significance and depth of this history. It is that history that frames my work in the legislature and drives my commitment to build upon the efforts of black men and women, who arrived in the state long before my family.
The earliest record of African Americans in Wisconsin comes from a 1725 speech by a chief of the Illinois Indians, in which he mentioned “a negro belonging to Monsieur de Boisbriant” at Green Bay. History reflects that we have been living and working in Wisconsin since the 18th century, and records of baptisms, marriages, and burials indicate that African-Americans were woven into the fabric of early life in the state.
The tapestry of our existence has been tattered by the fight to secure the right to vote, fair and open housing, equal access to employment and training opportunities and a seat at the table of political power. We’ve made incremental gains in representation in key fields to include Eugene Kane, Mikel Holt, and Jerrol Jones (Journalism and Media), Martha Love (Civic Engagement and Business), Melissa Goins and Kaylan Haywood (Construction), Jack Daniels III (Education), Rev. Alex Gee (Faith), Maurice Cheeks (Tech), Valerie Daniels-Carter (Business) Ismael Ozanne (Legal), Clayborn Benson (History), Dr. Lester Carter (Health), Congresswoman Gwen Moore (Politics) and Mahlon Mitchell (First Responders). Some of these names you know and others you may not, but each have made measurable differences in their respective industries. We know the list is much longer.
It is important to recognize the work of African-Americans around the state. It is equally critical to appreciate, both past and present, the long list of contributions of so many who sacrificed, marched, supported, educated, and died that we could occupy the schools, positions, and homes that far too many take for granted. I am constantly learning a new chapter in that history, like that of the book Hidden Figures and the role of African-American women in NASA’s space program.
Black History Month gives Wisconsinites, and the world an occasion to recognize the significant influence people of African heritage have made, and continue to make, in the areas, of medicine, art, politics, human rights, education, sports, economic development; and so much more. It is a reminder to actively seek out this history, share your findings, and educate one another. We really have only scratched the surface of understanding who we are as a people and our role in the world.