We are coming to the close of the first week of Black History Month. In case you didn’t know, the month-long celebration began in 1926 as Negro History Week by historian Carter G. Woodson. It took place the 2nd week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass on the 12th and 14th, respectively. It wasn’t until Black students at Kent State University (my birthplace and my dad’s alma mater) in Ohio proposed a month-long observance that the BHM idea emerged. In February 1970, the first Black History Month was observed at Kent State. Six years later during the nation’s bicentennial, President Gerald Ford officially declared Black History Month as recognized by the federal government to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Today, Black History Month is also celebrated internationally, in Great Britain and Canada.
Every Friday in February I will blog several Black history facts in various fields. Black history isn’t just about black Americans, it’s about ALL Americans, and realizing that American history is also Black History, Hispanic history, Asian history and so on. So take a moment this month to remember all the reasons to be appreciative–All Year Long–of Black contributions to society.
Onesimus was a slave born in Africa in the late seventeenth century before eventually landing in Boston. He was a gift to the Puritan church minister Cotton Mather and told him about the centuries old tradition of inoculation practiced in Africa. By extracting the material from an infected person and scratching it into the skin of an uninfected person, you could deliberately introduce smallpox to the healthy individual making them immune. Mather convinced Dr. Zabdiel Boylston to experiment with the procedure when a smallpox epidemic hit Boston in 1721 and over 240 people were inoculated. Only 2% of patients requesting inoculation died compared to the 15% of people not inoculated who contracted smallpox. Onesimus’ traditional African practice was used to inoculate American soldiers during the Revolutionary War and introduced the concept of inoculation to the United States.
The “Lone Ranger” was inspired by an African American man named Bass Reeves. Reeves had been born a slave but escaped West during the Civil War and eventually became a Deputy U.S. Marshal, was a master of disguise, an expert marksman, had a Native American companion, and rode a silver horse. The Wild West drew enslaved Blacks with the hope of freedom and wages. While there was little formal segregation in frontier towns and a great deal of personal freedom, Black cowboys were often expected to do more of the work and the roughest jobs compared to their white counterparts. In fact, it is believed that the term “cowboy” originated as a derogatory term used to describe Black “cowhands.”
Born on a SC cotton plantation in 1927, Kitt enjoyed a lengthy Broadway and singing career that won her 3 Emmy awards and the smash hit Christmas single “Santa Baby.” She also portrayed Catwoman in the 1967 television series of Batman and was a staunch activist for everything from urban youth and women to LGBT right and anti-war protests. For all you 90s kids who still think you’ve never heard/seen her, here’s a fun fact. She was the voice of Yzma in The Emperor’s New School animated series.
That’s right, America’s favorite guilty pleasure in the snack department is one to celebrate during BHM and every time you bite into a sub and chips. George Crum was the son of an African-American father and a Native American mother. He was a chef when he invented the potato chip in 1953 after a customer complained that his fries were too thick. Crum sliced them paper thin, crisped them and behold! “Saratoga chips” as they were called. When you crack open a bag of Lay’s, thank George.
Patricia Bath is a retired ophthalmologist from Harlem. She was the first black woman to receive a medical patent and the first black woman female surgeon at UCLA Med. Bath was trained at Hunter College and Howard Med School. After completing her residency at NYU, she went on to a successful career and invented several methods and tools to improve cataract and laser surgery and treatment. Her strides in these fields have helped those all over the world with sight impairments.
That’s all for this week, but be on the lookout next Friday for 7 more Black History is American History facts. And comment below with your favorite Black history accomplishments!