Black History Month was created for people like me who need to be educated about the cultural experience of my fellow citizens who are black. I understand February was chosen because it is the birth month of the great emancipator Abraham Lincoln, and the famous abolitionist Fredrick Douglass.
It should be obvious that learning about black history is useful. It introduces young people to the persons of influence who led in the struggle for civil rights for African Americans. It reminds the nation of events in our history we never want to see repeated. It helps folks who were born to white privilege to understand the points of view of those who have not been so privileged.
Benjamin Watson wrote, “The solution to the problem of race in America will be found only by ordinary people… looking inside themselves, being honest about the assumptions and biases that have formed, and beginning to change what’s in their hearts.” In that spirit, I want my life and ministry to contribute to racial understanding and reconciliation.
Some time ago Connie and I attended a seminar at the Oklahoma History Center near the State Capitol. It featured the stories of Oklahoma’s historically black towns founded by and for the “freedmen,” ex-slaves of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole tribes. We heard about the racial tensions that accompanied the allotment of land to these ex-slaves after the civil war, tensions that carried over into the twentieth century and Oklahoma statehood.
In fact, according to an article in the current (Jan./Feb.) issue of Oklahoma Today, published by the Historical Society, the very first piece of legislation passed by the newly-formed Oklahoma Senate was a law requiring the racial segregation of public transportation and schools. The legislature also passed, in 1916, a clause denying black people the right to vote.
The article describes the “legalized discrimination in housing, employment, transportation, education, and voting restrictions” endured by Americans of African descent in Oklahoma. It briefly tells about the massacre of black citizens when angry white mobs set fire to the Greenwood District of Tulsa in 1921. Over three hundred black people were killed and 10,000 were made homeless.
Can we who are white understand and appreciate the deep spiritual and psychic scars inflicted on subsequent generations by mob violence, systemic racism, and abuse of police power? I, for one, have a lot to learn.
The article tells how Oklahoma teacher and civil rights activist Clara Luper organized students to peacefully protest racial segregation in Oklahoma City in the 1950s. this was before the national civil rights movement of the 60s. She was a pioneer of the movement.
It relates the story of Ida Lois Sipuel Fisher, the first black female graduate, in 1952, of the Oklahoma University College of Law. This was even before the famous Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court case that led to the end of racial segregation of schools in 1954. Ida Lois Sipuel Fisher is remembered proudly for her determined opposition to racial bigotry and exclusion in higher education.
As a white boy growing up in the segregated South, I knew about white supremacy and racial prejudice from the other side. In my youth I did not have the wisdom, the courage or the vocabulary to challenge the systemic racism that was our southern way of life in the 1950s. I am grateful that God has forgiven me for the stupid and sinful attitudes of my boyhood. I am grateful for the grace that has been extended to me by African American brothers in Christ. As I grow older, I want to continue to learn about their cultural history and their determination to overcome injustice.
Clara Luper is reported to have said, “My biggest job now is making white people understand that black history is white history. We cannot separate the two.” This agrees with the apostle Paul who preached that God created all races of people and “he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth” (Acts 17:26).