It’s time to Break It Down!
Twelve years ago, in February 2010, I wrote a series of 4 profiles on African Americans, 3 of whom were little known. While their exploits were dramatic in all four instances, they were simply fundamentally, even stunningly life altering in some cases. In 2012, I synthesized the material from those four posts into one digest, which I reposted in 2019. I am reprising again today.
We live in an age in which, despite the ubiquitous nature of the Internet and the pervasiveness of the 24-7 news cycle, the names, exploits, and accomplishments of luminaries such as Henrietta Lacks, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, and Alexander Manly are enmeshed in an historical nebula; present, but barely known or visible.
By contrast, speak or write the name Barack Obama, and due to a variety of factors, almost anyone you meet in the civilized world is capable of spouting off a vast array of factoids, real, imagined, true or false. As POTUS, President Obama certainly earned all the notoriety he amassed, while the relative lack of knowledge about Lacks, Brown, and Manly is in no way an accurate reflection of their relative importance. All made important contribution to life, as we know it in America; at least one altered the dynamics of medical history around the world.
Alex Manly, who was African American, was also a descendent of Charles Manly, North Carolina’s 31st Governor. In 1898, Wilmington held the dual distinction of being North Carolina’s largest city, and predominantly black. Mr. Manly was the editor of the Wilmington Daily Record, the only black-owned newspaper in the United States at the time. He wrote a controversial editorial with both racial and sexual implications. The piece was so super-charged that it is cited as the catalyst for the infamous November 10, 1898 Wilmington race riot. The gist of Manly’s editorial comments is aptly distilled in this quote:
- “Our experience among poor white people in the country teaches us that women of that race are not any more particular in the matter of clandestine meetings with colored men than the white men with the colored women.”
The rest is history; it took three months, but in November, after the August editorial that included that quote, Wilmington burned…and Manly and the robust black leadership class fled the city. Manly was an example of a bold and defiant voice that emerging black leaders would demonstrate in the American South and across this country in the coming years. The reaction of much of Wilmington’s white citizenry was equally clear, and at that juncture, more powerfully defiant.
Charlotte Hawkins Brown was a native North Carolinian who was educated in Massachusetts, and who returned to her home state to lead an all-girls’ school, which she later transformed into a Junior College.
Ms. Brown made her mark fostering and improving African American achievement, especially among women. Her considerable legacy includes:
- Active involvement in the National Council of Negro Women
- The first black woman to serve on the National Board of the Young Women’s Christian Association
- Retired in 1952 as President of the Alice Freeman Palmer Memorial Institute, better known as Palmer Memorial Institute (PMI), the school she founded in 1902
- Ultimately responsible for educating more than 1,000 African American students who attended PMI between 1902 and 1970, when it closed
Henrietta Lacks is not from North Carolina (she hailed from neighboring Virginia), but her story’s impact permeates not only the Tar Heel (and Old Dominion) state, and the rest of the country, but spans the entire globe. Ms. Lacks, who lived a short life, by almost any measure, died of cervical cancer at age 31 in 1951. Posthumously, she would go on to have an inordinate impact on cancer treatment as well as several other serious diseases, all over the world, through cells removed prior to her death. The essence of her story is that:
- Researchers at Johns Hopkins discovered a scientific breakthrough related to Ms. Lacks’ cells. In a departure from anything the scientists had seen before, the cells culled from Ms. Lacks continued to grow, outside of her body, and after her death. In fact, they did not just survive, they multiplied. In a circular irony, cells from Ms. Lacks’ culture were used to help Dr. Jonas Salk develop a vaccine for polio in 1955. Of course, Ms. Lacks had marched to help find a cure for that disease just four years earlier.
Unarguably, the Barack Obama story is one that most Americans are familiar with, at least tangentially. President Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother, was born in Hawaii, graduated from Columbia University, and Harvard University Law School, and went on to become a Chicago community organizer. Oh yeah, on November 4, 2008, he was elected President of the United States. As such:
- He became the 44th American to serve as our nation’s President. As POTUS, he was at the epicenter of national and world news coverage on a daily basis. His address, at the time, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, is among the most famous in the world; his title, Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces is one of the most revered. As President of the United States most people considered him the most powerful man on the planet.
One of President Obama’s historic appointments was the selection of Eric Holder as Attorney General (He also subsequently appointed Loretta Lynch, also an African American, who filled the position when General Holder stepped down to pursue other interests). That would hold special significance this month anyway, as Mr. Holder is African American. It has taken on an added dimension however, as Dr. Sharon Malone, Mr. Holder’s wife, distinguished in her own right, shared a part of her family history in a 2019 PBS Special, in which she detailed how her Uncle Henry, born nearly 30 after slavery ended officially, was one of thousands of black men arrested on fabricated charges and forced into labor camps and compelled to work without pay. As Dr. Malone told the story, she asked that we:
- Imagine that this “convict leasing” system saw the groups of prisoners sold to private parties – like plantation owners or corporations – and that it was not only tolerated by both the North and Southbut was largely ignored by the U.S. Justice Department.
- Now, imagine that nearly a century after your uncle served 366 days in this penal labor system, you find yourself married to the head of the U.S. Justice Department, who, ironically, just so happens to be the first African American in the position.
There are many reasons why this information is not just historically significant, but contemporarily relevant. None is more compelling than debunking the idea that the vagaries and vicissitudes of slavery and its variant offshoots no longer plague our society in general and African Americans in particular. As Dr. Malone put it:
- “I want people to understand that this is not something that’s divorced and separate, and this doesn’t have anything to do with them. If you were a black person who grew up in the South, some way or the other – whether or not you were directly involved in the system as my uncle was – you knew somebody who was, or your daily lives were circumscribed by those circumstances.”
Unless you are part of Dr. Malone’s immediate family, her Uncle Henry is likely even more of an unknown to you than Alex Manly, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, and Henrietta Lacks. Yet, his story is as irrevocably interwoven into the fabric of African American and American History as that of President Obama. In fact, African American History is American History. Over this month, by all means, take at least one more moment to reflect on the fact it’s not just a month, it’s every single day, 24/7/365…“Black History Month (BHM) Week 3: Chronicles of the Evolution of American Life Redux ’22!”
I’m done; holla back!
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