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Black history is American history

Waveney Ann Moore

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Rendering of the new Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum by architects Mario Gooden and Wannemacher Jensen

Last Sunday’s rain delayed my early morning walk, setting me up for a timely burst of music as I stepped out the front door.

 I recognized it immediately. Accompanied by percussion and amplified by a public address system, the song was “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

As always happens when I hear what is popularly known as the Black National Anthem, I was deeply moved. The music was coming from a church on the other side of a nearby cul-de-sac and as it ended, car horns honked approval.

I don’t know what the neighbors whose homes back up to the outdoor service thought, or whether they even knew the significance of the song that reverberated through the morning air for blocks, but for me, it was a reminder that it is Black History Month.

But this year, Black History Month made national headlines when some parents at Maria Montessori Academy in North Ogden, Utah, a public charter school, got permission to opt-out of its celebration and lessons. Good sense eventually prevailed.

In an email quoted by the New York Times, school director Micah Hirokawa said he had spoken with families and “expressed the importance of the study and assured them that all the content shared would be ethical and rooted in the state social studies standards.”

I wondered about the use of the word “ethical” in this context. Is it possible that parents thought lessons involving Black history would corrupt the minds of their children? Lessons that were perhaps about Frederick Douglass, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Shirley Chisholm, President Barack Obama and other Black achievers? Or was it that there might be a hint of the inhumane and sinful act of enslaving a people? Perhaps it’s the nascent Black Lives Matter movement?

In any case, their congressman quickly issued a statement on his website. U.S. Rep. Blake Moore said he was disappointed and saddened by news that some parents wanted to opt out of Black History Month, but heartened that the school reversed its decision.

“While I have not reviewed the curriculum myself, I strongly believe we cannot learn American history without learning Black history,” the Republican said.

Those sentiments are echoed by Jason Jensen, principal at Wannemacher Jensen Architects in St. Petersburg. The firm teamed up with award-winning African-American architect Mario Gooden of New York to design the new $20 million home of St. Petersburg’s Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum.

“You can’t opt out of African-American history, because it is American History,” Jensen told me. “You can’t choose which chapters you want to read.”

We appear to be fortunate in Pinellas County. Matthew Blum, Pinellas School District’s 9-12 social studies content specialist, said he has not heard any concerns about Black History Month and its lessons during the seven years he’s been in his position.

Black history is not just taught during February, Blum said, but is infused into the curriculum throughout the year. “That’s an ongoing process for us. We continue to update, improve and innovate,” he said, adding that the School District’s equity and social studies teams highlight local African-American figures and events and even produces a newsletter.

The annual acknowledgement of Black Americans and their achievements and contributions was conceived by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, an author and historian. The first “Negro History Week” was observed in February 1926. President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976.

Terri Lipsey Scott, executive director of St. Petersburg’s Woodson Museum, was appalled to learn of the families who wanted to opt out of Black History Month. She blames the recent incitement of racial animus for the controversy. “They have been emboldened to speak their truth and no longer hide behind the mask of deception of how they really feel,” she said. “Folks that have truly no respect or regard for African Americans or their history have absolutely no remorse in speaking their truth and not wanting to hear about the contributions that African Americans have made to this nation.”

Fittingly, the design of the Woodson’s new home was unveiled this Black History Month. The new museum will be built on historic 22nd Street S — the Deuces – once the heart of African-American business and entertainment.

Mayor Rick Kriseman and Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin will kick off the capital campaign with letters soliciting donations from philanthropists and corporations, Scott said. Lorna Taylor, president and CEO of Premier Eye Care, will lead the fundraising effort.

The approximately 30,000-square-foot, two-story facility promises amenities that include three galleries, a 500-seat event forum with movable glass walls that open to a sculpture garden and an event lawn, catering kitchen, book and gift shop, offices, justice center or community room, a classroom and covered outdoor event space.

Gooden, principal at New York’s Huff + Gooden Architects, spoke of the design during a video appearance before the St. Petersburg City Council. The project, he said, is “a commitment of labor and care, particularly at this historic convergence of the global pandemic, the fight for social justice and Black Lives Matter and the ongoing threat of global climate change — all of which have disproportionately affected Black people, indigenous people and people of color.”

Both he and Jensen – Gooden was Jensen’s first architecture professor at the University of Florida – spoke of the influence of jazz on their museum design and the embrace of the Historic Manhattan Casino across the street, where legendary musicians such as Louis Armstrong performed.

“Much like jazz, the building has multiple players and components seemingly disassembling and coming together for one beautiful piece of music,” Jensen rhapsodized. “It will have a strong street presence, echoing the past vibrancy of 22nd Street S. Art and sculpture will be visible to the outside community, making the transition into the museum an inviting, familiar transition.”

How different from the days when Black people could not visit museums, a prohibition that didn’t change until the 1960s, Gooden shared with council members back in 2019. When Black people were allowed to visit, they were relegated to a specific day. In Memphis, it was “Negro Thursdays.”

It does seem that despite centuries of racism and its recent blatant reemergence, there’s reason to celebrate and blast the neighborhood with “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

 

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