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African-American reader shares unfolding black history facts

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COMMENTARY

By LELA WILLIAMS

February is Black History Month, formerly known as Negro History Week. The recognition was started in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson. Woodson was a 1903 graduate of Berea College (Kentucky), the first interracial and coeducational college in the South. He was the second black to earn a doctorate from Harvard University in 1912.
I don’t remember black history being taught when I attended junior high and high school in Michigan. I’m sure some information was taught. I, as many others from my generation, know of or remember reading about such achievers as George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman and Booker T. Washington.
I want to share some black history facts I have read about during the past few years. I am not a historian. I am a reader. My journey takes me to a variety of resources available in libraries, bookstores, and even at yard sales. An example of what “I’ve Been Reading About”:
HeLa cells. These cells are said to have led to some of the greatest medical breakthroughs of the last hundred years. They have been used in research that led to polio vaccine; helping develop medicines to fight cancer, the flu and Parkinson’s disease; the research that led to gene mapping; used to test the effects of atomic radiation and sent into outer space. One person’s cells, without her consent, are credited with these accomplishments being possible. Henrietta Lack, described as a poor 30-year old black woman, is the person to thank. She died of cervical cancer more than 60 years ago without knowing of these medical wonders.
There’s much more interesting reading.
Melungeons. I first heard this word during a Humanities class lecture. A recent article in “The News-Enterprise” provided an update. According to a new DNA study, Melungeons are the offsprings of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European origin. A sociologist is quoted as saying “race mixing in the U.S. is not a new phenomenon.”
Matthew “Mack” Robinson, Silver medalist winner in the 1936 Munich Olympics (remember, Jesse Owens won the Gold), was the oldest brother of baseball legend Jackie Robinson. Although Mack returned to a parade in Pasadena, the only job available was as a garbage collector. He and other workers were fired after winning a court judgment for equal pay. Louise Stokes and Tidye Pickett had qualified for the Olympics, in track and field events, in 1932. They were not allowed to participate because of their race.
General Braddock, the first free African-American in Hardin County (1797). No, he was not an Army general officer. He was the body servant of General Edward Braddock. One of his achievements was the founding of a farming commune of free Negroes, “The Free Negroes of Meade County.” Read more about how he won his freedom and other achievements in writings by local writers Gary Kempf and Paul Urbahns. I found this material in the Elizabethtown Brown Pusey House Library.
The Wereth Eleven. This is an award-winning docudrama about 11 U.S. soldiers killed during the Battle of the Bulge. They were from the all-black 333 Field Artillery Battalion that landed at Utah Beach on June 29, 1944. Real soldiers portrayed them in the docudrama. This article was not easy to read. I’m not sure I’ll be able to view the film.
Living in the immediate Fort Knox area for over 40 years, I must mention a few U.S. Army figures that have made history. Brig. Gen. Hazel Johnson was the first black female general officer (1979). Johnson died Aug. 5, 2011. Maj. Gov. Marcia Anderson, formerly of Human Resources Command, Fort Knox, is the first black female two-star general officer (Oct. 3, 2011). Holding a special place in my heart, though, is Brig. Gen. Margaret Barnes, deputy commanding general of HRC. I received my first general officer challenge coin from Barnes!
I have enjoyed these, for me, new historical discoveries. There are many opportunities for life-long learning regardless of subject. I am anxious to complete another leg of my self-designed journey.