What Black History Said To Me

Black History Month is an opportunity to celebrate the contributions, achievements, and resilience of Black Americans, and to also reflect on the systemic racism that continues to pervade society. One manifestation of this inequity is that Black people are disproportionately affected by homelessness: Approximately 57 percent of heads of household in NYC shelters are Black. As we wrote in our State of the Homeless 2020 report, “Homelessness is unequivocally a racial justice issue, and is one manifestation of historic and persistent housing discrimination, biased economic and housing policies, extreme income inequality, and disproportionately high levels of poverty among people of color, as well as biased policing and incarceration in communities of color.”

We recently asked some members of our Client Advisory Group (CAG) to share their perspectives on Black History Month, as Black New Yorkers who have experienced homelessness. In response, Constance D. Woodson wrote this reflection on what Black History means to her. To read another Black History Month submission from a CAG member, visit this page for a poem by M.A. Dennis.

Imagine a 5-year-old child sitting in front of a black-and-white television watching Malcolm X and the founders of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale, and Huey P. Newton, promoting Black Nationalism, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marching on Washington for equality for all. The fact that they were brutally attacked and murdered was terrifying and too complex for a young child to understand.

Equally terrifying was watching White nationalist followers of Donald Trump who refused to accept his defeat and incited in real-time an insurrection on the federal government. The angry, blood-thirsty mobs of armed White supremacists spread feces inside the Capitol walls, flailed confederate flags, and carried zip-ties, ending with five people dead including a Capitol police officer. Their attempt to stop the count of electoral votes imitated what followed the Reconstruction Act of 1867.

American history is marked by racial violence and White nationalism. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, stating “that all persons held as slaves within rebellious states are and henceforward shall be free,” applied to only the southern states governed independently from the Union, and left slavery intact in states that were not. Unjustly, Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson, passed southern legislation, the Black Code (1865-66) – later known as Jim Crow – to contain the behaviors and labor markets of four million newly freed women, men, and children following the Civil War in the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877). Reconstruction gave Black men a voice in the government by granting them the right to participate in elections, winning southern state elections and seats in the U.S Congress. Decades later, Ku Klux Klan groups reversed the Reconstruction Act with a violent backlash that restored White supremacy – the echoes of which could be heard during the January 6, 2021, insurrection.

“The Father of Black History.”
Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site, 1915.

For decades, illiteracy was used as a weapon to suppress Black people as major contributors and registered voters. Carter G. Woodson, the Father of Black History, knew that it could be fatal if young Black people were uneducated about the real history and contributions of their Black ancestors, and he dedicated his career to the field of African-American history.

Woodson’s advocacy for Black education succeeded, and Negro History Week was launched in 1926. February was chosen in honor of Frederick Douglass’ and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday month. Fifty years later in 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized February as Black History Month.

I for one, have issues with a month-long recognition of only iconic Black inventors and innovators. We too often disregard other Black enslaved and freedmen inventors who made our day-to-day lives easier. Many Black inventors and innovators claimed patents at the turn of the 19th century: Lewis Latimer invented longer-lasting light bulbs, Alexander Miles patented a mechanism (still used today) that automatically opens and closes elevator shafts, Sarah Boone re-designed the ironing board, Garrett Augustus Morgan invented the three-light traffic light, and Frederick McKinley Jones invented refrigerated trucks. These are only a few of the Black inventors who have made daily life easier and safer, but who are not household names. They overcame tremendous barriers and discrimination and deserve recognition.

Looking back on that 5-year-old girl sitting in front of the television, and looking ahead to the events we will undoubtedly watch play out in the aftermath of Trump’s presidency and the insurrection on the Capitol, it is clear that we have as long to go in combatting White supremacy now as we did then. Racial trauma has dogged Black people for over 400 years – from poverty and homelessness, to police brutality and mass incarcerations. People of color have a higher risk of triggers than any other culture. We need to confront our nation’s history and the persistent racism in order to move forward. Racial healing starts with ourselves.