Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Speaking of Education: Don't Forget Black Economic History

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Speaking of Education: Don't Forget Black Economic History

Article excerpt

Speaking of Education: Don't Forget Black Economic History.

February is the shortest month, and the coldest one. And while I realize that Carter G. Woodson had his reasons for choosing the week in February that included Abraham Lincoln's birthday as Negro History week, the precursor of Black History Month, it is a chilling irony that we focus on African American history in this, the shortest month of the year.

It ought not be just a month. African American history ought to be fully infused into our history, literature, politics, science, arts and economics courses. Recognition of African American life. And in this month. African American people ought to expand the dimensions of our celebration. In addition to doing the standard "key dates in Black history," or the tributes to those historical figures whose lives have become part of popular culture (has anyone noticed the male bias in those figures we focus on?), we ought to use Black History Month to challenge myths and to explore unexplored aspects of our history.

There has been scant focus on African American economic history, and yet this history bears celebrating. University of Illinois Professor Juliet Walker's book on her great-great grandfather who bought his freedom from his master, Free Frank, reminds us that African American people did not passively accept slavery, but worked "the system" to get free of the "peculiar institution." Free Frank was one of thousands of craftsmen who, though enslaved, was able to hire his time out to buy his freedom.

Larger Focus

Slaves and former slaves dominated the crafts industries in the South until laws were passed forbidding people to own the tools of their trade, and until restrictive unions organized crafts workers to include only "white men of good character." The Black Power Imperative, by Theodore Cross, is one of many volumes that explores the way that some crafts unions had the exclusion of African Americans written into their charters.

I'm indebted to Detroit Free Press columnist Anthony Neely for a tip about a book, Entrepreneurship and Self-Help Among Black Americans, by University of Texas Professor John Sibley Butler. Butler notes that free Blacks dominated the restaurant and service industries in the North before the Civil War. Southern craftsmen applied for, and received dozens of federal patents, and some successfully marketed their inventions. We've all celebrated and appreciated the genius of Madame C.J. Walker, her cosmetics empire, and her contributions to African American life in her era, but we need to more fully explore aspects of her genius during Black History Month. …

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