By Colbert I. King Columnist|Follow Washington Post February 11th 2023
In this second week of Black History Month, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) reintroduced their bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to approximately 200,000 African Americans who served with the Union Army during the Civil War. My great-grandfather Isaiah King of New Bedford was among them. He was a soldier with Company D of the Fifth Massachusetts (Colored) Cavalry, having enlisted at age 17 on Jan. 16, 1864.S
Those brave Black soldiers served with honor in a system that paid them less than it paid White troops and under adverse conditions, including the risk of enslavement and torture if captured by Confederate forces. Their valor is largely unrecognized or unappreciated.
Getting a pension was another ordeal. It took Great-Granddaddy King 13 years to finally get his pension.
With that as a backdrop, I enter into this year’s observance of Black History Month. It’s a step that I take without warm feelings.
Yes, I join in paying tribute to accomplished Black trailblazers and their contributions to the building of America. I have been doing that since grade school in the 1940s, when the celebration was conducted under the banner “Negro History Week.” It was important then, as it is now, to show that Black contributions extend beyond the fields of sports, entertainment and military service. This country is also a commanding figure on the world stage because of the fight for human rights by the descendants of enslaved Black people — a struggle that inspired independence and anti-colonialism movements around the world.
What stays with me, however, is the reason for continuing to set aside a special time of the year for this observance.
Renowned historian and author John Hope Franklin said Carter G. Woodson, who founded Negro History Week in 1926, always believed that the day would come when there no longer would be a need to set aside such a time, because the history of African Americans would become an integral part of American history to be observed throughout the year. Until Woodson’s death in 1950, Franklin said, he continued to express hope that Negro History Week would outlive its usefulness. It hasn’t. But not for the best of reasons.
The observance served a necessary purpose for Black youngsters in my generation. We needed to hear about the role of Black people in the making of America because we were being told by White people of our day that there was nothing about us, or our mommas and daddies, or other people who looked like us, that White people were bound to respect. And that disdain was expressed in tangible ways.
I’m not talking about Black experiences learned from reading a book or classroom lectures, or from tales told by elders. I lived that history — that long, darkened slice of life that affected my heart and mind in ways unlikely ever to be undone. Those experiences will be with me until my dying day.
Try living with knowledge that White Washingtonians have given the sanction of law to prevent Black-skinned children from attending their schools and our parents, preachers and teachers from entering their theaters and restaurants. Try growing up in a city that, by custom, denied Black people the chance to try on clothes in department stores or sit at drugstore counters; try having to tolerate a racial etiquette in which White men and White women were always addressed by “Mr.,” “Mrs.” or “Miss,” while first-name usage was reserved for Black men and women — regardless of rank, station or age.
Imagine, if you can, what it’s like as a young teen looking for a job to open your morning newspapers and see job advertisements for Whites only. To know that the key reason you could not work inside a bank, a department store, a downtown office building or in a service station, drugstore or restaurant — except for menial jobs — is that you were born Black.
Try knowing, even as a child and young adult, that you were receiving that kind of treatment because White people in our nation’s capital wanted to instill in you a sense of inferiority.
That was my world.
Legalized racism is now off the books, albeit not voluntarily, but by court orders and federal laws. Few employers, store and shop owners, public school leaders or neighborhood citizen associations of my day stopped, looked around and said, “Naw, I don’t want to do that anymore. Let’s do the right thing.” Law, not conscience, made the changes.
Negro History Week, now Black History Month, seeks to refute racial denigration. But that the observance is still needed speaks volumes about where we are as a country. To think: Some states are banning teaching about the impact of racial bias in the pursuit of democracy under the guise of eliminating critical race theory. African American history is American history with all its warts. Period.
My great-granddaddy King is a reminder of that.