Dick Gregory, the late comedian and activist, once quipped in a stand-up routine that “when they gave black folks a month to celebrate our history, it figures that they gave us the shortest month of the year. But it’s better than just a week.”
His joke might have been a bit caustic, but his history was solid. While originally not officially recognized, beginning in 1926 there was a week set aside in February to note the historical achievement of African Americans, timed to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
By the 1960s, thanks to the civil rights movement, that week became an entire month on college campuses across the country, and proclaimed as such by many local and state governments. Finally in 1976, President Gerald Ford officially marked February as Black History Month, calling upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
This month — which thanks to the leap year gives us a 29th day to enjoy — is intended to invite and encourage us all to reflect on and honor the many contributions African Americans have made, not just throughout U.S. history, but right here as well.
For example, St. Mary’s is justifiably proud to note the achievement of Dr. Jerome Adams, an anesthesiologist who grew up in Mechanicsville and graduated from Chopticon High, as surgeon general of the United States — meaning he is the nation’s top doctor and public health specialist.
It’s also a month for events and celebrations. Earlier this week, the Unified Committee for Afro-American Contributions here in St. Mary’s was honored by Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford (R) for its many contributions with the Sen. Verda Freeman Welcome Legacy Award. Elected in 1962, Freeman, who represented Baltimore, was the first black woman to win a seat as a state senator in America. As of last month, her portrait adorns a wall of the Maryland Senate.
Also in the state house now are new, life-sized bronze statues of noted Maryland abolitionists Douglass and Harriet Tubman. And while the commissioning of the statues was put in motion more than three years ago, their arrival coincides with new leadership in the state legislature as Del. Adrienne T. Jones (D-Baltimore County) became the first African American, and the first woman, to be voted by her peers as speaker of the House of Delegates. That’s another notable milestone.
Elsewhere in the area, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) attended and spoke eloquently last weekend at the 39th annual Black History Month Breakfast in Upper Marlboro.
There have been some other ceremonies and celebrations to mark the month, and there’s one more intriguing one yet to come on the calendar. A presentation at the Lexington Park library, “Into the Great Unknown: African American Adventurers and Explorers,” will take place tomorrow, Saturday, Feb. 22, from 2 to 3 p.m. The program is recommended for ages 5 to adult, and no registration is required. It is being cosponsored by the St. Mary’s chapter of the NAACP, the Unified Committee for Afro-American Contributions and the Minority Outreach Coalition.
In a more serious moment than his joke about the comparative shortness of February on the calendar, Gregory said of the civil rights struggle: “This isn’t a revolution of black against white; this is a revolution of right against wrong. And right has never lost.”
What’s also right is recognizing that we all matter, and that all contributions meld together to make us what we are. That’s worth celebrating — and not just during February.