Truly honoring black history

Truly honoring black history
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Each year, as Black History Month arrives, there are those who focus on the grievances and injuries of the past, with speeches and films featuring archived photos of slaves in the fields and video clips of attacks with police dogs and fire hoses. Black America is in danger of normalizing failure unless it is willing to learn from its history. As deplorable as those injustices were, people are inspired and motivated by victories that are possible, not injuries that have been inflicted.

In fact, the history of the black community is replete with models of achievement that was accomplished, in spite of injustice and disparity. But those stories have been ignored and the sagas of those victories have not been passed on to the generations who hunger for them. Most Americans — black and white — are unaware of the number of slaves who, by virtue of their genius, determination and effort, rose to become millionaires and made important contributions to society. Among these models of awe-inspiring achievement against the odds was Biddy Mason, whose entrepreneurial instincts and skills enabled her to become the wealthiest African American woman in Los Angeles in the late 1800s.

Entrepreneurship was a key element of the successful rise from slavery and rested on the values of thrift, temperance, steadfastness and economic enterprise. In Philadelphia, blacks dominated the catering business until the end of the 19th century, making Philadelphia catering famous across the country. James Forten became one of the city’s principal sail-makers, employed more than 40 white and black workers and had a fortune of $100,000 in the 1830s. The Chesapeake and Marine Railroad and Dry Dock Company was formed by black dockworkers in Baltimore after 1,000 black workers lost their jobs in 1863. In St. Louis, Madam C. J. Walker developed a cosmetics enterprise that made her a millionaire.


In the first 50 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, black Americans had accumulated a personal wealth of $700 million. They owned more than 40,000 businesses, and 937,999 farms. The literacy rate had climbed from 5 percent to 70 percent. Black commercial enclaves in Durham, North Carolina, and the Greenwood Avenue section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, together were known as the Negro Wall Street.

The second major element of the rise of the black community was the strong moral and spiritual tenets that were upheld before and after the Civil War. In the 1800s, mutual-aid societies comprised the National Negro Movement, all of which included a requirement of moral competency. For example, assistance from the Mother Bethel Church in Philadelphia specified that individuals could not qualify for aid if their poverty was due to "their own slothfulness or immorality."

Those moral and spiritual principles served as a shield against the horrors of slavery, Jim Crow  and racism, and it constructed a wall of protection for the culture of the black community. Even in the face of lynching, segregation and racism, from the early days through the first half of the 20th century, cultural decay did not occur. Even during the years of the depression, the black marriage rate exceeded the marriage formation rates of whites, and, until 1960, 82 percent of all black families had a man and woman raising children.

The victories of the civil rights movement in the 1960s opened doors that some walked through, but the low-income foot soldiers who struggled and sacrificed the most for the cause did not benefit. As the War on Poverty gave rise to a massive and continually expanding system of dependency-focused programs, the vital values that allowed blacks to survive and thrive through the worst oppression were undermined and a virtual industry of agencies and service-providers was built on the backs of the poor.

Today, the purported spokespersons of the black community have embraced an agenda of racial grievance, and the important debate about goals and strategies for solutions that was vital to the civil rights movement has been silenced. Today, a rising generation is barraged with the message that the greatest stumbling block to their success is an amorphous, all-purpose villain of "institutional racism" and that, while any vestige of that remains, they cannot progress. Yet, in our nation's largest cities, our children are failing in institutions and agencies under black leadership and, in the absence of moral moorings and value-generating institutions, urban streets have become literal killing fields.

The "social justice warriors" have normalized failure for black students, demanding that the bar of competency be lowered for their academic performance, attendance and behavior. Ironically, their assumption that consistent standards should not be applied for all races resonates with the message of white supremacy.

In their escape from bondage, slaves were protected by a network of support of the safe-havens of the Underground Railroad. Today, we must recognize and support a "Second Underground Railroad" that exists in the outreach of neighborhood leaders who, in many of the nation’s most disadvantaged and disinvested communities, are keeping alive the embers of the vision, values and principles that allowed our ancestors to rise. Today, the shackles that chain the capacity and potential of our youth are internal — the embrace of a demeaning and disabling message of the race-grievance merchants.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed 50 years ago, if a black is to be truly free "he must move down into the inner resources of his own soul and sign with a pen and ink of self-assertive manhood his own emancipation proclamation."

Robert L. Woodson Sr. founded The Woodson Center in 1981 to help residents of low-income neighborhoods address problems of their communities. He has headed the National Urban League Department of Criminal Justice, and has been a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Foundation for Public Policy Research. Follow him on Twitter @BobWoodson.