By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Reporter
I stopped “celebrating” Black History Month decades ago in lieu of an ongoing observation and chronicling of Black excellence personally and professionally.
It was Ossie Davis who, during the eulogy of Malcolm X, declared, “Malcolm had stopped being “negro” years ago. It had become too small, too puny and too weak a word for him. Malcolm was bigger than that. Malcolm had become an Afro-American,” Davis said Feb. 27, 1965, at the Faith Temple Church of God in Harlem.
Like Malcolm, the man Davis referred to as “our living Black manhood,” Black History Month is “too puny” to tell the eternal story of Black people. And any observation certainly should not be constrained to the shortest, coldest month of the year. Surely the titan of history Carter G. Woodson knew Black History Week, which he founded in February 1926, would evolve beyond a seven-day observation. Still, Woodson knew we, Black Americans, had to start somewhere.
Perhaps, now it’s time for the next evolutionary phase of what is known as Black History Month.
Not that there haven’t been previous attempts to broaden the scope and length of the celebration. Remember “Black History 365” sponsored by, umm, McDonald’s? To it’s credit the ubiquitous fast food juggernaut established the “365Black” and 365Black.com almost 20 years ago in 2003, a campaign to support Black culture and community year-round. And that’s the point: Black history is American history of course.
To that point, this month I decided (rather spontaneously) to write a different story featuring examples of Black excellence, some obscure and others famous, each day (minus Valentine’s Day and my lady’s birthday celebration) and post the stories on Facebook. The response from people was beautiful.
Here’s an abbreviated recap:
Feb 1: Charles W. Follis, known as “The Black Cyclone,” became the first Black professional football player on an integrated team in 1904, more than 40 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.
Feb 2: Pauli Murray, born in Baltimore, was an author, civil rights activist, lawyer and the first woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. And ultimately was a pioneering figure in the LGBTQ movement.
Feb 3: Prophet Kiowa Costonie, led the “Buy Where You Can Work” boycott for Black employment in Baltimore and the first official client of a young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall.
Feb 4: Velvalea “Vel” Phillips, a political titan in Wisconsin, the first Black person and first woman to be elected to the Milwaukee City Council and the first Black person and first woman to be a judge in Wisconsin.
Feb 5: The Honey Bear. NFL Hall-of-Famer, Willie Lanier, one of the greatest middle linebackers in the history of the NFL, the first recipient of the NFL’s Man of the Year award, and a graduate of Morgan State College.
Feb 6: Mrs. Dorothy Brunson, a legendary media mogul, who was the first Black woman to own a radio station and a television station in the United States.
Feb 7: Hail to the Champ! Doug Williams, the first Black quarterback to start in an NFL Championship game or Super Bowl and in the process set several Super Bowl records for the quarterback position.
Feb 8: Florestine Perrault Collins, who 20 years before Gordon Parks was a freelance photographer for Vogue magazine, was mastering the art of fashion photography in New Orleans.
Feb 9: Col. Charles Young, the third Black man to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a man who mentored Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., the first brigadier general in the history of the U.S. military.
Feb 10: The Matriarch. Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the matriarch of the Mitchell political dynasty, a civil rights firebrand in her own right and the first Black woman to practice law in Maryland.
Feb 11: Charles Hamilton Houston, arguably the greatest legal mind of the 20th century, who along with Thurgood Marshall were the legal brain trusts that dismantled Jim Crow.
Feb 12: The Champ is Here! Evelyn Ashford, one of the greatest and most poised track athletes the world has ever witnessed.
Feb 13: Bro. Robert F. Williams, a revolutionary civil rights leader and the author of Negroes With Guns, a book that had great influence over Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party.
Feb 15: The Hon. Barbara Jordan, the first Black woman to serve in the House of Representatives from a Southern state
Feb 16: Dr. Benjamin Mays, Dr. King’s “spiritual mentor and intellectual father.”
Feb 17: Superbad. Naomi Sims, the first Black supermodel.
Feb 18: The Phantom. Leon Ware, the extraordinary singer and music producer, who was integral in the production of some of Marvin Gaye’s musical masterpieces.
Feb 21: The Trailblazer. Althea Gibson, the first Black athlete to win a Grand Slam tennis tournament (multiple times) and was also a professional golfer.
Feb 22: The 101st Senator. Clarence Mitchell, Jr., Patriarch of the Mitchell political dynasty and a legendary AFRO reporter.
Feb 23: The Queen of Flair. Mrs. Willia Bland, the founder of Flair Modeling Studio, who was also a trailblazer in Baltimore’s healthcare industry.
Feb 24: Webster Lewis, a Baltimore-born musical genius, who also happened to be the co-founder of Iota Phi Theta fraternity on the campus of Morgan State College in 1963.
Feb 26: The DuBois Connection. The fact W.E.B. DuBois lived in Morgan Park in East Baltimore from 1940-1950, the community where Dr. “Mr. Carl” Carl Murphy established the Murphy family homestead.
Feb 27: The Man. The Hon. Parren J. Mitchell, the greatest public servant this state has ever known.
Feb 28: “Our Living Black Manhood.” our martyred Bro. Malcolm X, perhaps the greatest American of them all.
America, Black America should at least be imbued with the reality of Black excellence and the role of Black Americans in the building and true greatness of this country.
Black history is American history.
Sean Yoes is the AFRO’s Senior Reporter and the author of Baltimore After Freddie Gray: Real Stories From One of America’s Great Imperiled Cities.