Mitchel Nickols: For Black History Month, let’s celebrate contributions
Here we are, hundreds of years since millions of slaves were deported from the west coast of Africa involuntarily, and millions died because of poor conditions on slave ships. Yet the call for all Americans to join in the celebration of Black History Month is not too much to ask.
The son of slaves and eventual Ph.D. graduate from Harvard University, Carter G. Woodson made his first U.S. proposal for such recognition on behalf of African-Americans in 1926. It wasn’t until 1976 when the designation was realized and endorsed by President Gerald Ford.
Historians and scholars understood the journey of the African to and in America and highlighted it in their works: John Hope Franklin (“From Slavery to Freedom”), Lerone Bennett Jr. (“The Shaping of Black America: The Struggles and Triumphs of African-Americans”), Ivan Van Sertima (“They Came Before Columbus”) and J.A. Rogers (“100 Amazing Facts about the Negro with Complete Proof”).
My personal library is stocked with many other books that enriched my classroom when I taught African-American history at the Community College of Allegheny County over 20 years ago.
Anyone who wants to understand and appreciate the positive contributions of African-Americans to society doesn’t have to look far. Black people invented the imaging X-ray spectrometer, ironing board, artificial pacemaker control unit, street-sweeper truck, disposable syringe and home security system. Blacks hold more than 40 patents for heating, ventilation and air conditioning, and led a team that created the first one-gigahertz computer chip. There are many more.
Most of these inventions and opportunities came after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation Jan. 1, 1863.
Willie Thrower Sr. of New Kensington was the first African-American to play quarterback in the NFL, relieving George Blanda during a game against the San Francisco 49ers. Some considered him the Jackie Robinson of football .
Chuck Cooper, an All-American from Pittsburgh at Duquesne University, in 1950 became the first African-American to sign an NBA contract, playing for the Boston Celtics. Cooper would likely be the Jackie Robinson of basketball.
Despite these and other great contributions to American society, the path to inclusion is still an uphill path for many African-Americans. Often, we hear that things are different and improvements have been made. But most of those improvements have come on the hills of protests, lawsuits and ongoing discussions on race, diversity, implicit bias, unconscious bias and micro-aggressions. We just don’t see enough people who look like us when issues need confronted. Black history benefits both black and white children.
The recent unveiling of a photo of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam dressed in either blackface or a KKK outfit while in medical school during the 1980s is more than troubling in 2019.
Training I do with police departments and school districts calls urgently for an education on how diverse the country is and training so our blighted past does not continue. The divisive rhetoric can be scaled back with more intentional efforts to educate our youth in schools during Black History Month, and serious conversations with decision-makers about how all of us can have our own pieces of the American pie.
Mitchel Nickols, Ph.D., of Lower Burrell, is an instructor in the leadership and administration and community engagement programs at Point Park University. He is a diversity and sensitivity trainer and consultant for police departments and school districts throughout Western Pennsylvania.