In the midst of Black History Month, many people who have knocked down racial barriers and surpassed stereotypes, but their immense talent often remains unknown.
African-Americans such as James Weldon Johnson, Billie Holiday and Carter G. Woodson are not as recognizable as Dr. Martin Luther King or Harriet Tubman, but their contributions also helped shatter discrimination and segregation.
James Weldon Johnson, born in June 1871 as James William Johnson, was a poet, diplomat, novelist, editor and historian. A very busy man, he was also a lawyer, songwriter, principal, civil rights leader and anthologist of black culture.
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1894 from Atlanta University. A distinguished student, he was chosen to give the graduation speech. He went on to become the first black lawyer in Florida and was also an Ambassador to Venezuela (1906), Nicaragua (1909) and Azores (1912). While he wrote “The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man,” he is most famous for writing Lift Every Voice and Sing, which later became the national anthem for African-Americans.
Carter G. Woodson, born in December 1875 in New Canton, Va., popularized the black studies field. An American historian, he wanted to direct attention onto African-American contributions to society. Known as the “Father of Black History,” Woodson dedicated his life to researching and preserving the African American experience. This dedication led him to establish Negro History Week in February 1926, which has evolved into Black History Month. Woodson, the youngest of nine children, born to former slaves, taught himself until he could enroll in high school at age 20. He graduated from Berea College in 1903 and the University of Chicago with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in History and Romance Languages in 1908. He went on to become the second black person to receive a doctorate from Harvard University in 1912. Before dying of a heart attack in 1950, he wrote or co-wrote 22 books including “The Negro in our History” and “The Miseducation of the Negro.”
The struggles of African-Americans have been many. These great individuals were significant and helped shape a culture that would not be hindered or subsided by discrimination or segregation. Black History Month is about recognition and remembrance of those, famous and not so famous, who walked the long road and built the strong foundation we now stand on.