By James Revels
“History is the torch that is meant to illuminate the past to guard us against the repetition of our mistakes of other days,” wrote Claude Bowers. February is Black History Month, a time set aside to reflect on the contributions of Black Americans to our history.
First observed more than 90 years ago, as Negro History Week, to coincide with the birth month of former President Lincoln and renowned civil rights activist Frederick Douglas, the event has evolved into the celebration observed today.
With the announced retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer, President Biden announced his plans to nominate, for the first time in our history, a Black female judge to the U.S. Supreme Court. As expected, this historic announcement spawned race-based outrage within the Republican Party, notwithstanding the fact that previous Republican presidents announced plans to put white women on the Supreme Court. Due to the normalization of racism, fueled by the reign of the 45th, there are no consequences for overt racist comments today.
As a result of this historic announcement, I would like to take this opportunity to illuminate some of the achievements and contributions of Black women.
Two who dared to strike a blow for freedom and equality, risking death in the process, were Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. The quest for freedom and equality is often thought of as a battle fought by strong courageous men, but these two women occupy a special place in Black history.
Sojourner Truth, born around 1797, the property of a Dutch master in New York, was called Isabella Baumfree until 1863, when she ran away to teach and preach against slavery. Her travels, preaching and teaching earned her fame and the label “mystic.”
Another irritant to slave owners was Harriet Tubman, who gained fame from her hazardous work on the Underground Railroad. (The Underground Railroad was a network of agents, mostly Quakers, militant abolitionists and Christian people, scattered through the free states, but united in their common purpose of facilitating the escape of slaves by clandestine methods in defiance of pro-slavery laws of the United States.)
“Born a slave in Maryland, but endowed with too much love of freedom not to break the chains which held her, she became in the North the most venturesome worker in the employ of the Underground Railroad,” Charles Wesley wrote in “The Negro in Our History.” Tubman’s endeavors were so significant President Obama proposed to put her picture on the $20 bill, but the firewall of racism within the Republican Party prevented this worthy recognition from becoming reality.
Another renowned pioneer in the battle to end slavery was Charlotte Forten. An abolitionist from Philadelphia, Forten traveled to Sea Island, S.C., to teach Black children, newly liberated, how to read. She also risked death from the defenders of slavery. She detailed her experiences in a number of essays, published in The Atlantic.
“Her writing is vivid and modern and beautifully descriptive,” wrote Jeffrey Goldberg, current editor of The Atlantic. “Forten takes her readers to a remote and brutal stretch of the confederacy, and she renders her subjects, the persecuted, resilient people of South Carolina’s rice and cotton plantations, fully human.”
Other significant Black women include the first Black woman general officer in the U.S. military, Hazel Johnson, who was promoted on Sept. 1,1979. Other Black women have been the first in fields of medicine, politics, education, government and sports.
As we witness the Winter Olympics in China, the first Black woman to win a gold media was Alice Coachman, of Albany State Teachers College, who won gold in the high jump at the 1948 Olympics in London.
The achievements cited here were accomplished in the face of significant resistance, hate and opposition. Their efforts are worthy of our recognition today. If we are to chart a course to our future, we must first understand our past.
Any list of influential Americans will contain the names of skillful, brave Black women, who continue to be warriors in the battle for equality and justice. We recognize their efforts this month so that this nation might someday become a more perfect union.
James Revels is a retired Army colonel and former columnist for the El Paso Times who lives in East El Paso.
Cover photo: Sojourner Truth, left, and Harriet Tubman.