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I do not remember black history being taught when I attended junior high and high school in Michigan. I’m sure some information was taught because I, as many others from my generation, know of such achievers as George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman and Booker T. Washington.
February is Black History Month. Formerly known as Negro History Week, the recognition was started in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson. He was a 1903 graduate of Berea College here in Kentucky, which was the first interracial and co-educational college in the South. Woodson also was the second black to earn a doctorate from Harvard University in 1912.
I am not a historian. I am a reader. My journey takes me to a variety of resources available in libraries, bookstores and even at yard sales. I want to share some black history facts that I have read during the past few years.
HeLa cells. These cells are said to have led to some of the greatest medical breakthroughs of the last 100 years. They have been used in research that led to the polio vaccine; helping develop medicines to fight cancer, the flu and Parkinson’s disease. The discovery also led to research that led to gene mapping, tested the effects of atomic radiation and being sent into outer space. One person’s cells, taken without her consent, are credited with making these accomplishments possible. Henrietta Lack, described as a poor, 30-year-old black woman, is the person to thank. She died of cervical cancer more than 60 years ago without knowing about these medical wonders.
Melungeons. I first heard this world during a humanities class lecture. A recent article in The News-Enterprise provided an update. According to a new DNA study, Melungeons are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European origin. A sociologist is quoted as saying “race mxing in the U.S. is not a new phenomemon.”
Matthew “Mack” Robinson. A silver medalist in the 1936 Munich Olympics (remember, Jesse Owens won the gold), he was the oldest brother of baseball legend Jackie Robinson. Although Mack returned to a parade in Pasadena, the only job available to him was as a garbage collector. He and other workers were fired after winning a court judgment for equal pay. Louise Stokes and Tidye Pickett had qualified for Olympic track and field events in 1932 but were not allowed to participate because of their race.
General Braddock. He was the first free Negro in Hardin County in 1797. No, he was not an Army general officer. He was the body servant of Gen. Edward Braddock. One of his achievements was the founding of a farming commune of free Negros in Meade County. Read more about how he won his freedom and other achievements in writings by local writers Gary Kempf and Paul W. Urbahns. I found this material in the Brown-Pusey House’s library in Elizabethtown.
“The Wereth Eleven.” This is an award-winning docudrama about 11 U.S. soldiers killed during the Battle of the Bulge. They were from the all-black 333rd Field Artillery battalion that landed at Utah Beach on June 29, 1944. Real soldiers portrayed them in the docudrama. This article was not easy to read. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to view the film.
Living in the immediate Fort Knox area for more than 40 years, I must mention a few U.S. Army figures who have made history. Brig. Gen. Hazel Johnson was the first black female general officer in 1979. She died Aug. 5, 2011. Maj. Gen. Marcia Anderson, formerly of the Human Resources Command at Fort Knox, is the first black female two-star general officer on Oct. 3, 2011.
Holding a special place in my heart though is Brig. Gen. Margarett Barnes, deputy commanding general of HRC. I received my first general officer Challenge Coin from Brig. Gen. Barnes.
If you want to learn more, Berea is a wonderful “staycation” destination. I recommend visiting in the fall when the leaves are changing colors. It’s a beautiful drive. Stop or stay at the historic Boone Tavern and enjoy their delicious spoonbread. Tour the campus and the city of Berea.
I have enjoyed these new historical discoveries. There are many opportunities for life-long learning, regardless of the subject. I am anxious to complete another leg of my self-designed journey.
A Radcliff resident, Lela Williams is a retired Department of the Army civil service employee.