Those Who Came Before The People We Know: Black History As American History
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Black History Month is celebrated in February because when Dr. Carter G. Woodson began to promote this important missing part of American history in 1915, February was already celebrated as the birthday month of Abraham Lincoln and Abolitionist Frederick Douglas. Black Academic Scholars promoted it in the 1960s, and President Gerald Ford declared Black History Month a national celebration in 1976. United States Congress passed it into law in 1986 designating the month of February as Black History Month.
Congressman John Lewis was a student leader in the 1960s and the youngest major spokesperson at the 1963 March on Washington where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have A Dream” speech. As a congressman, he continued to be a champion for racial justice, human rights, voting rights, and full inclusion and rights for the LGBTQ community. His mantra —and most noted quote—was “Good trouble” having been arrested many times from the 1960s until his death. He insisted all Americans could do something to advance the cause of justice for all.
Rosa Parks is known for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. She refused to move to the back of the bus where blacks were relegated while seats in the front of the bus were needed for white passengers. Her long consistent participation in the civil rights struggle and her work with the NAACP is often under reported due to her action that sparked the Montgomery bus boycott that lasted 385 days.
When I give thanks for the pastors and lay people who have encouraged and influenced me, I often forget that there were people who came before them and paved the way for their contributions. My parents grew up and lived in Montgomery, Alabama, through a time of segregation and later integration. The Church and faith in a God who could “turn things around” planted hope that succeeding generations would see and experience more equality and opportunity. We are all standing on the shoulders of men and women and children who came before us and—in many cases—paved the way for us.
I invite you to meet and explore three African Americans who came before the aforementioned people who are more well known to many of us today: Althea Gibson, Abraham Galloway, and Claudette Colvin.
Althea Gibson was born in South Carolina in 1927. Her parents, who were cotton sharecroppers, migrated to New York in 1930 with the hope of better economic opportunity and racial equality. While she struggled in school at an early age, she become an accomplished table tennis player at the age of 12, winning competitions. When she was introduced to tennis, she excelled and became the first black person to win major titles in tennis. She was relegated to the African American Tennis Circuit winning championships until she broke the color barrier and went on to win the Italian Championship in 1956 and 1957. She won 11 championship titles between 1956-1958 including the Wimbledon, French Open and the U.S. Open titles. She was ranked first in the world among women players in 1957 and 1958. Althea Gibson was elected to the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971. Venus Williams is quoted as saying, “Althea Gibson’s accomplishments set the stage for my success, and through players like myself and Serena and many others to come, her legacy will live on.”
Abraham Galloway was a radical and ambitious abolitionist who was recruited to be a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War. Born in 1837 in North Carolina enslaved, he escaped slavery at age 20 and fled to Philadelphia and later Canada. He traveled to Haiti to participate in a planned attack on the South and the Confederate Army that never took place. He returned to the North and was recruited to be a spy as the Union Army was planning to attack the coast in North Carolina. Abraham Galloway is reported to have recruited thousands of Black soldiers to fight in the Union army. History books rarely mention that ten percent of the Union army were Black soldiers. Outspoken and always one to demand respect, Galloway believed that freedom must be fought for. No slaves were freed by “Talking their way into freedom.” He was described as a cross between Malcolm X and James Bond as a charismatic leader. In 1868, he was elected as a State Senator in North Carolina. Abraham Galloway died at the age of 33.
Claudette Colvin’s act of bravery took place nine months before Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat. At the age of 15, Claudette refused to give up her seat to a white woman and was arrested and charged with assault and battery, disorderly conduct, and disobedience of a city ordinance in Montgomery, Alabama. This happened in 1955, and she finally had her arrest record expunged in December 2021. After she got out jail, she was ostracized by many people who labeled her a trouble maker. Claudette joined the youth Council of the NAACP and was befriended and mentored by Rosa Parks. Claudette is in a long line of young people who have paved the way. “Don’t be afraid to stand up for what is right,” she said.
The arc of the universe may bend toward justice. However, this is only made possible by people like Claudette Colvin, Abraham Galloway, and Althea Gibson. We are all better off when we are not shielded from history and herstory. Black History Month is a gift for all who love truth and Beloved Community.
Hebrews 12:1 reads, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…”
Bishop Julius C. Trimble
Indiana Conference of The United Methodist Church
Sources: Lift Every Voice/Winfrey/Hannah Jones, Hearst Home Publishing: NPR, Internet Biography research