February in America is Black History Month, when we give extra attention to our great African Americans. Carter Woodson, renowned African American scholar, is credited with having started it all on the 50th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. In 1915, Woodson attended a national celebration in Washington, DC which highlighted the progress of blacks since the Civil War. Over time, what was first known as Negro Achievement Week morphed into Negro History Week and, in the 1960s, into Black History Month. Woodson chose February because of two heroes: Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday is February 12th, and Frederick Douglass, who celebrated his birthday on February 14th.
Abraham Lincoln’s song is All across the Land. (American Heroes CD)
Frederick Douglass (1818-95) escaped the master’s whip at the age of 20 when he fled North, disguised as a sailor. He became a powerful voice for the freedom of all blacks whose lecturing and reasoning were so impressive that opponents refused to believe he had been a slave. A beacon of morality whose vision transcended race and gender, he wrote books and published a newspaper discussing the evils of slavery and promoting the rights of women.
Legend has it that on February 20, 1895, a young black man who attended a lecture by Douglass was so inspired that he went straight to Douglass’ home just outside Washington, DC that night hoping to speak with the great man. He waited on the broad front steps of Douglass’ house. When Douglass arrived home, the young man asked what he could do to help the cause of African Americans. Douglass responded with what were evidently his last three words: “Agitate. Agitate. Agitate.” He then quietly entered his home and died of a heart attack later that night.
It was Frederick Douglass who said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who favor freedom without agitation want crops without plowing... they want rain without thunder and lightning.”
Frederick Douglass’s song, co-written with Peter Bliss and Dave Kinnoin, is Agitate. (More American Heroes CD)
Beginning in 1937, Carter Woodson focused on making the celebration of African Americans an annual event at the urging of Mary McCleod Bethune (1875-1955), once the most influential black woman in America. At 29, she started her own school for African Americans with $1.50, all the money she owned. She became a voice of hope and optimism, inspiring pride and self-confidence in others. Firmly committed to social justice, she taught her students how to succeed, insisting they pay it forward by helping others who were less fortunate. Her non-confrontational style of preferring conference tables to picket lines enabled her to build bridges between black and white communities that advanced the cause for equal rights. She was the first black woman to serve as a presidential advisor and the first black person to have a national monument dedicated to her in Washington, DC.
Mary McLeod Bethune’s song, co-written with Jimmy Hammer, is Heads, Hearts, and Hands. (American Heroes #4 CD)