The making of a melting pot
Marty Jones, CEO of Metro East Community Media, remembers a time before Black History Month existed.
It used to be an optional event, created in 1926 by historian and author Carter G. Woodson, called "Negro History Week."
The first place to expand the celebration was Kent State University, at the behest of the Black United Students, in Jones' home state of Ohio. He grew up near Kent State in Columbus, and by the time he was in junior high school, Black History Month had become a part of the collective consciousness.
"The notion of America is as a melting pot, with all sorts of hints and flavors stirred in," Jones said. "The reality is we are selective with that pot, so this month realizes a need to recognize the individual ingredients."
Black History Month is an annual observance in February that is geared toward the remembrance of important people and events in black culture in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Many organizations, political groups, schools and more will place an increased focus on teaching about the many black individuals who made a mark on history.
And while there is a relative lack of events in East Multnomah County focused on Black History Month, for many of the people living and working in the community, February offers a chance to educate and celebrate.
For Jones, Black History Month is an opportunity to distinguish individuals who have made an impact. It is important to learn about those outside of the mainstream, which is something Metro East, which provides audio-visual media-creating opportunities for the community, continues to work toward.
"We have to share their accomplishments, because it can be easy to get caught up in all the stereotypes," he said.
Metro East has shown several programs on its public-access cable TV channels in February geared toward Black History Month, while its Diversity Outreach Team works throughout the year to connect with and celebrate the work of numerous minority groups.
"As an organization, we look towards supporting numerous communities," Jones said. "We hope others also begin to make this a priority."
Interwoven with U.S. history
For Rockwood resident Rachelle Dixon, first vice chairwoman of the Multnomah County Democrats, the exciting part about black history is learning about those who aren't always in the limelight. While most people know about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, others who have made significant contributions are often neglected by history.
"I found out the first African-American firefighter was a black woman," Dixon said of Molly Williams. "That kind of information gets lost in the shuffle of all the significant events that have happened."
Williams served in New York City the early 1800s, and was not only the first black firefighter but also the first woman to hold the position in the United States. This is the kind of thing Dixon would love to see added to textbooks and public knowledge.
"These types of beautiful stories are interwoven into the fabric of America, and I wish we would tell more of them," she said. "The civil rights era was of course important, but those people were able to achieve because of the work done by those who came before them."
The Multnomah County Democrats shared another piece of black history on their website. In 1989, Ron Brown, a former Supreme Court lawyer and leader of the National Urban League, was elected as chairman of the Democratic Party National Committee — the first African American man to hold the position. He went on to successfully run the 1992 convention.
To celebrate Black History Month, the Multnomah County Democrats are inviting the community to join them at 4:45 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19, at the Hollywood Theater, 4122 N.E. Sandy Blvd., for a showing of "I Am Not Your Negro." Tickets are $6 at the door.
"The documentary is about race relations in America, and anyone is welcome to join us," Dixon said. "It is an important story that needs to be told."
Sense of belonging
Despite the dearth of black history events in East Multnomah County, schools in the Reynolds District celebrate Black History in various ways.
Walt Morey Middle School is having a special performance from a theater troupe called "Who Am I Celebrating Me." Reynolds Middle School is having a special assembly including a speech from basketball player and youth mentor Antoine Stoudamire and will have students read special poetry as part of the daily announcements. Alder Elementary School is hosting a presentation called "Through Our Eyes, The Cultural History of Blacks in America."
Centae Richards, director of equity and compliance at Reynolds School District, said Black History Month remains relevant more than 40 years after it was created. The annual observation benefits both black Americans and people of other races.
"Black History month is great, and I appreciate the month as a time to focus" on the history and the many contributions of black Americans to society, he said. "For people who are not black and for African-Americans, it is about who we are and how prideful we are of our contributions to society."
Richards believes black history and the contributions made by African-Americans should be incorporated in school curriculum in a regular way, but that taking a month to emphasize it is time well spent in school.
When people of other races study black history and understand it more thoroughly, he noted, "we may have less conflict with other ethnicities."
It is important, he noted, not only for "little black boys and girls" to understand this important heritage, but also for "people who may not understand the importance of black history to black people," for whom "it helps instill a sense of belonging to the rest of America."