What Black History Month means to me

  • Published
  • By Capt. Paulette McKenzie
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Exercise Evaluation Team
Friday, America's observance of Black History Month will be over. This year's theme was "Carter G. Woodson and the Origins of Multiculturalism." Through the years, I've had people ask me why we celebrate Black History Month. I always take this opportunity to educate on the remarkable contributions of black people that make up America's rich heritage. 

Who is Carter G. Woodson? According to my collection of Pomegranate Publishing African American Knowledge Cards, Dr. Woodson was a writer and historian, who lived from 1875 to 1950. He was born in New Canton, Va., to former slaves Anne Eliza (Riddle) and James Henry Woodson. Although his parents could neither read nor write, Carter Woodson credited his father for influencing the course of his life. Dr. Woodson went to great lengths to educate himself so he could educate others. 

He financed his studies by working as a coal miner. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Chicago in 1907 and completed his formal education with a doctorate degree from Harvard University in 1912. Dr. Woodson's field of study was history and at the time there were barely any references of black people in history books, even though blacks had been in America since Colonial times. He revealed long-hidden historical facts and hoped to lift the veil of ignorance from all people. Dr. Carter G. Woodson was the father of "Negro History Week" which became "Black History Month" in 1926. 

To me, everyday of the year is a time for education - not a time for reliving the atrocities of the past. As the mother of two young ladies, I continually enlighten them on black history by telling them how this rich heritage inspired me as a child. I focus on the Black Americans whose amazing accomplishments enrich our lives to this day. Here are a few examples: 

Garrett Morgan, invented the safety helmet, patented in 1912. These helmets were used by Allied forces in World War I and served as a prototype of the modern gas mask used by fire departments and emergency rescue teams today. In 1923, Mr. Morgan also patented the three-color electric traffic signal, which now stands on almost every street corner in the world. 

Elijah McCoy patented a self-lubricating system for engines in 1872. Railroad owners soon discovered that it saved money and prevented locomotive problems. In his lifetime, Elijah McCoy received more than 50 patents, most for lubricating devices, though he also invented an ironing table and a lawn sprinkler. His lubricators came to be known as the "real McCoy," a phrase denoting quality and authenticity.

Throughout my life, there was always been someone who inspired each step. Wilma Rudolph was the first female American runner to win three gold medals in the Olympic Games. She earned the title of "World's Fastest Woman" by winning the 100-meter and the 200-meter dash and anchoring the 400-meter relay at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. As a runner in high school, I was inspired by Wilma Rudolph's whose phenomenal accomplishments that helped remove barriers for women to participate in track and field events. I was also the anchor of a 400-meter relay team during high school. Wilma Rudolph's achievements would be considered remarkable by any standard, but in light of the fact that as a child she suffered from polio and scarlet fever that left her unable to walk without braces until age 12, they are amazing. 

Without a doubt, Gen. Colin Powell's life and career have been the biggest inspiration for me. We share a few things in common: being raised in New York, children of Jamaican immigrants who emphasized education, and we served in the military.
In speeches he could be counted on to give thanks to a country that had given him such opportunity. I feel the same way, especially during trips to visit my family in Jamaica. The older I get, the more I realize the leap of faith my parents took by coming to America. As a child, my father would tell my brother and me that he arrived in New York with a borrowed suitcase, a suit and a smile. It took tremendous courage to leave his homeland so my brother and I could have a better life and options unavailable in Jamaica. 

I had the opportunity to meet General Powell while I was stationed in Ohio at a book signing for his 1995 autobiography, "My American Journey." With a small Jamaican flag in my hand, I waited for hours just to hopefully catch a glimpse of him. Luckily, as I got closer to him he noticed the Jamaican flag and he paused for moment after he signed my book to shake my hand. 

General Powell never forgot where he came from. After becoming the youngest and the first Black American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he stated in a speech to Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps cadets, "I am deeply mindful of the debt I owe to those who went before me. I climbed on their backs. I challenge every young person here today: don't forget their service and their sacrifice; and don't forget our service and sacrifice, and climb on our backs."  General Powell later became the first black Secretary of State in 2001. 

So as Black History Month comes to end, let's remember the reason we observe Black History Month. It's a time set aside to educate and reflect on the contributions to our society by Americans of African descent. 

Today we remain true to Dr. Woodson's hopes and dreams by continuing to highlight and embrace black history.