Ever heard of a woman named Henrietta Lacks? Or what about George Crum and Garrett Morgan? They are among thousands of notable Black figures in American history who made significant contributions to society. If you’re wondering what else the African-American population contributed to building their country or if you are interested to learn more about Black inventors and pioneers across the world, perhaps now during Black History Month would be a good time to get started.
Since Shanghai American School’s inaugural Black History Month celebrations are taking place throughout February, students are learning more about the unsung Black heroes that gave their blood, sweat and tears to help make the world a better place. More so, it’s creating opportunities for discussion about diversity and equality. Teachers have poured their hearts and souls into creating exciting and engaging activities for students from Elementary all the way through to High School. There are book displays and readings by mystery guests, to trivia and photo galleries, and dressing in the pan-African colors: black, red, yellow and green.
When thinking of her students’ futures, Puxi High School English and Innovation teacher Ms. LaDonna Pearson felt compelled to start Black History Month celebrations at SAS. The drive became stronger when students were approaching her with questions about Affirmative Action and the AP African-American Studies class taught in the U.S.
“They will go abroad and have black professors, doctors and neighbors. They will benefit from Affirmative Action and have mixed feelings about it. The opportunity to better understand the diversity and complexity of the Black perspective and other perspectives that intersect with their own is vital. We want to provide opportunities for these conversations. Black History Month is about shining light on how diverse people of African descent are around the world. It’s an exploratory month about broadening knowledge.”
While having one month dedicated to this helps create awareness that African-Americans contributed to building society, Pudong Middle School Humanities teacher Ms. Marian Bradshaw believes Black history is being made every day.
“It’s important to learn about it because of the narrative in the US where black people are not always featured in a positive light. Black History Month is meant to highlight and point out the contributions African-Americans have made to the U.S. They have done a lot of positive things that people are not aware of, from civil rights legislation, inventions, art and cultural contributions and so much more that have benefitted the whole nation.”
For SAS student, Rowan ‘24, Black History Month is an opportunity to clear the misconceptions and break the negative stereotypes placed upon Black Americans.
“It’s about the celebration and appreciation of Black culture and the opportunity for our voices and stories to be heard. I feel like one month isn’t nearly enough, but it’s best to take advantage of that and use it to its full capacity to educate others. It’s an opportunity for me to share stories of people who are role models to me.”
SAS Kindergarten teacher Ms. Elizabeth Buglya who has a diverse family, says Black History Month is a chance for people from mixed backgrounds to see themselves represented. “It’s important to be culturally responsive to the students in front of us and there’s an opportunity with Black History Month to do that.”
Deep Dive into Black History Month
You might be wondering how Black History Month came about, so let’s travel back a century in time.
The roots of Black History Month were laid down in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, a Black American scholar, historian, author and journalist in response to a systematic removal of Black contributions from textbooks. He founded the Association for the Student of African American Life and History (ASALH) and was one of the first scholars to study the African diaspora and African-American history.
At first, a week in February was dedicated to exploring Black history. Woodson’s goals were to expose schoolchildren to African-American history and to encourage equality for the Black population in the U.S. He wanted people to see that America’s growth stemmed from contributions by Black people in creative, athletic, political, cultural, professional and academic areas, not just through slavery.
This one week in February became so popular that in 1970 it expanded to include the entire month of February. From 1976, U.S. presidents designated February as Black History Month. This has been welcomed by many civil rights activists, especially since schools in the U.S. largely excluded African-American history and Black contributions from being taught.
Under President Gerald Ford in 1976, the one week in February became Black History Month.
Why is Black History Month important?
Black History Month isn’t only important to go back in time and learn about Black influential people who helped shape the U.S. It encourages people to acknowledge that, to this day, Black Americans still do not have adequate representation in media, corporations and higher education, which stems from deep-rooted systematic oppression. Furthermore, police brutality resulting from racial profiling remains a huge problem in the U.S. and so many Black Americans are still severely lacking the resources needed to improve their lives. Many Black people do not feel safe in the U.S.
If you were wondering who Henrietta Lacks, George Crum and Garrett Morgan were, here are snippets of these remarkable African-American individuals.
Henrietta Lacks unknowingly contributed significantly to cancer research in 1951. When she was diagnosed with cancer that year, her doctors discovered she had the first human cell line that was able to reproduce indefinitely after they took samples from her body without her consent. Her immortalized cells became known as the HeLa cells and have saved more than 10 million lives.
Whether it’s BBQ, salt and vinegar or salted egg yolk, we all have our favorite flavor and brand of potato chips. The next time you decide to treat yourself to a bag of potato chips, spare a thought for George Crumb who, back in 1853, created this delightful snack, which is a favorite across the world.
An overlooked hero, Garret Morgan’s inventions in the early 1900s saved countless lives. He invented the gas mask and the three-position traffic light. He patented the “safety hood” in 1914 which allowed wearers to breathe more safely in the presence of pollutants such as smoke and gas. This device became the prototype and precursor for gas masks used during World War 1 to protect soldiers from toxic gases. After witnessing a horrific carriage accident at a problematic intersection, Morgan created a new traffic signal that included a warning light – which we know today as the yellow or amber light – to warn drivers that they need to stop.
Want to be a part of the Black History Month celebrations but don’t know how? Here’s what you can do:
Listen to jazz music from artists such as Yazmin, Lacey, Kamaal Williams, Christian Scott and Fatima.
Read literature from Black authors, like Yaa Gyasi, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Amanda Gorman, Brandon Taylor and Colson Whitehead.
Cook up a storm by making soul food like cornbread, plantains, red beans and rice, macaroni and cheese, and peach cobbler.
Enjoy a TV show created by or centered around Black perspectives, such as Take Note, Abbott Elementary, The Neighborhood and Black-ish.