The United States of America will celebrate its 242nd birthday later this summer.
Despite our nation’s advanced age, at least in human years, it is still struggling with self-awareness.
New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu eloquently pointed to the issue while presiding over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee: "Centuries-old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place. Here is the essential truth. We are better together than we are apart."
A nation conceived by a dream of individual liberty enslaved black Americans for nearly the first 90 years of its existence. After fighting a bloody Civil War that resulted in the 13th Amendment banning slavery, the country spent another 100 years looking the other way while a substantial percentage of its population was denied the unalienable rights enumerated in our founding documents.
This national dysfunction led historian Carter G. Woodson and clergyman Jesse E. Moorland to found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, just a half century after the passage of the 13th Amendment.
The organization sponsored Negro History Week, an observance that eventually became Black History Month. Since 1976, every American president has declared February Black History Month. Incidentally, the month is also observed in Canada, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
This year’s theme for Black History Month was African-Americans in Time of War. The observance coincides with the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
Like the country itself, the U.S. military has a checkered history when it comes to racial equality.
During World War I, 380,000 black Americans served in the armed services. Initially, the black regiments were not allowed to prove their mettle in battle. Ultimately, 200,000 black Americans were sent to fight in Europe, although, notably, they weren’t allowed to participate in parades before they deployed.
One unit, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, fought side-by-side with the French. The Hellfighters were the first unit to reach the Rhine River. Two members of the unit, Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, received the French Croix de Guerre for their valor.
That’s a story rarely told in our history books.
Southern Illinois history runs parallel to the country in general.
There are enduring legends of “sunset towns” throughout the region – towns in which African-Americans were warned not to be on the streets after dark. And, sadly, many residents of the region still openly display the Confederate battle flag.
Conversely, freed slaves sought refuge in Southern Illinois, forming small communities like Miller Grove in Pope County, Pond Settlement in Gallatin County and Bostick, located near Murphysboro.
In addition, Southern Illinois University actively recruited African-American students during the Jim Crow era, a time in which state and local laws denied African-Americans equal access to lunch counters and water fountains, much less equal educational opportunities.
But, history is more than studying the past. History is a living, breathing enterprise. We are creating tomorrow’s history today.
Events commemorating Black History Month are vital to our understanding of race and oppression in our modern society.
An outstanding example was the Tunnel of Oppression program presented by the Black Togetherness Organization and University Housing at SIU last week. The program took SIU students and visitors through a series of connected rooms, each depicting a form of oppression faced by black Americans today.
As we approach our country’s 242nd birthday, too many Americans insist that racism and oppression have been eradicated. For those outside the African-American community, if we only look at our own experience, we can make ourselves believe discrimination has disappeared.
Looking outside ourselves, looking at the history of our country, our region, and our small communities, should dispel that notion.
Therein lies the value of Black History Month. Each of us occasionally needs a reminder of the realities that have existed in our country, the progress we have made and the miles yet to travel.