Celebrating Black History Month
February is Black History month, a nationwide celebration of the many valuable contributions that African Americans have made to our nation’s rich culture. For our state, this month is a time to reflect on the legacy of the scores of influential black West Virginians. While each of their stories is inspiring, their passion and their individual quests for progress have truly made West Virginia and this country a better place.
Black History Month has incredible meaning in the Mountain State. None of us should ever forget our history; West Virginia was born out of the turmoil of the Civil War, and founded by patriots who shared a united pursuit for justice and freedom for all.
It is here in West Virginia that Dr. Carter G. Woodson who graduated from Douglass High School in Huntington and taught at West Virginia State College founded Black History Week, which later evolved into the month-long celebration we now observe all over this great nation.
Woodson believed that African Americans should have a strong sense of their past, so they could build a strong future. He knew the importance of educating young black men and women about where their ancestors came from and what they endured so that they could grow into productive citizens and leaders in our society.
This month, we salute Booker T. Washington, who worked in West Virginia and championed learning and higher education. We recognize Martin Delany (born in Charles Town), who fought for freedom. We celebrate Ethel Caffie-Austin, West Virginia’s “First Lady of Gospel Music” and a native of Mount Hope, as well as jazz musician Bob Thompson both are heroes of the arts and music. We honor Henry Louis Gates, a proud West Virginian born in Keyser who now leads the African American Studies Department in Harvard University, and Tony Brown of Charleston, a television commentator.
We remember the 14 African Americans who were trained at West Virginia State University during World War II. Those West Virginians were among a distinguished group of men who defied those who doubted them, helped bring racial equality to the military, and furthered the cause of civil rights across the United States. Two of the pilots trained at West Virginia State were among the first five Tuskegee pilot cadets, whose story is one of the most inspirational of World War II. Before the formation of the Tuskegee Airman, no U.S. military pilots were African-American.
The passionate work of these pioneers represents only some of the great contributions that black West Virginians have made to our state and our nation. But it is not enough to just remember their contributions, we must allow ourselves to be inspired and challenged by them. Their example of engaged leadership added strength to our communities then, and it will continue to help mold and educate the young people that will become our workforce of tomorrow.
Last month, I was honored to speak at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations in Morgantown, where I shared some of the values and lessons that Martin Luther King’s inspired civil rights work has taught me. I believe the enduring lesson from Dr. King and from all of West Virginia’s distinguished African American leaders — is that we are each capable of making a tremendous difference in the lives of our families, our friends, our communities and our nation. I urge all West Virginians to reflect upon the passionate leadership that has been born right here at home, and to carry on the positive tradition of those who came before us.