WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) spoke from the floor of the U.S. Senate Thursday afternoon to recognize Black History Month. Video of his remarks can be downloaded or viewed at this link.
“I rise today to talk about Black History Month, which has its roots with Carter G. Woodson as early as 1915 and has been officially recognized since 1976.
Black History Month is an opportunity for celebration and discovery. It’s a time to share the successes and contributions of Black Americans that are woven deeply into the fabric of American history.
Over the last year, we Marylanders made exciting history as Wes Moore became our State’s 63rd governor – the first person of color to hold that office and the only currently serving Black governor in the Nation. We also elected Anthony Brown, former Member of the House of Representatives and former Lt. Governor of Maryland, to be Attorney General. He, too, is the first Black to hold this position in our State. They join Adrienne Jones, the first Black and first woman to serve as Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, who has held the post since 2019.
Nationally, the Senate made history by confirming Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black woman to serve as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America. We are making progress.
Representation matters. When young girls and young boys of color see women and men who look like them holding positions of power, it makes a real, important difference in the expectations and aspirations they set for themselves. As Bernice King, the youngest daughter of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and chief executive officer of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change, said, “If you don’t think representation matters, you’re probably well-represented.”
Representation matters in history books, as well. Throughout our country’s history, we have seen blatant attacks on the teaching of African American history, as well as gaping omissions. Today, unfortunately, we continue to see these tactics play out across the Nation.
Let me share a little of that history with you. The first Africans arrived in North America in the 16th and 17th centuries. A group of former Spanish slaves, freed by Englishman Francis Drake, arrived in California in 1579 during his first voyage to circumnavigate the world. The first recorded group of enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619. They would be the first of hundreds of thousands brought here against their will and forced into servitude in North America.
In 1641, Matthias de Souza was elected to the Colonial Maryland Legislature – he was the first person of African descent to hold elected office in British North America.
By 1776, at the time of the American Revolutionary War, estimates are that about 20 percent of the population of the British colonies was of African descent – 20 percent! By 1788 when our Constitution was ratified, the Founding Fathers thought it appropriate that each of these men, women, and children were only to be counted as three-fifths of a person.
After the Civil War, with the abolition of slavery, Reconstruction meant opportunities for African Americans in the South and the North, including the right to vote and be elected to office, to own land, and participate in business.
In 1870, Mississippi elected the first African American U.S. Senator, Hiram Rhodes Revels, a one-time minister and school principal in Baltimore. He was followed by Senator Blanche K. Bruce, who served in this body from 1875 to 1881. African Americans were regularly elected to Congress until 1901. From there on it would be 28 years until another Black man served in the Congress.
The years in between were turbulent and regressive. The summer of 1919 was dubbed “Red Summer” as White-on-Black violence exploded in dozens of cities across the country and continued thereafter. On May 21, 2021, Greenwood, a prosperous Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as “Black Wall Street,” became the site of one of the most violent attacks on Black freedom and progress in our Nation’s history: the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. A white mob killed an estimated 300 people and destroyed more than 1,400 homes and businesses. Thousands of people were left homeless. Despite its severity and destructiveness, however, the Tulsa Race Massacre was barely mentioned in history books until the late 1990s, when the State formed a commission to document the incident. Tulsa is but one example. Regrettably, there are many more instances of white mob violence that also never made it into most history books.
Black history is American history, and attempts to whitewash or ignore the role African Americans have played in this Nation, even before our founding, is an immense disservice. Slavery and segregation and racism are ugly and dehumanizing but they are part of American history.
For too long our history lessons failed to acknowledge the African American experience and the role that African Americans have played in American history. We should all learn about inventors like George Washington Carver, who popularized crop rotation. Henry Blair, the second African American inventor in U.S. history to be issued a patent, was born a free man in Glen Ross, Maryland in 1807. His farm machinery revolutionized planting. Garrett Morgan patented the first traffic safety signal and developed the first gas mask. We should all learn about entrepreneurs like Madam C.J. Walker, whose hair care and cosmetics business made her the first female self-made millionaire in the U.S. Robert Johnson co-founded Black Entertainment Television (BET) on his way to becoming America’s first Black billionaire. We should all learn about scientists like Maryland’s own Benjamin Banneker, a largely self-taught mathematician, astronomer, and surveyor. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson furthered our knowledge of star and galaxy formation and evolution and has done as much as Carl Sagan to popularize science, especially astronomy. All of these individuals should take their place in our history books alongside Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Dr. King.
Unfortunately, instead of expanding the teaching of Black history, we are seeing a retrenchment. In Florida, we have seen one of the most brazen attacks on the teaching of African American history and culture with the Governor’s rejection of the College Board’s new Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies Course. For more than a year, Florida officials pressured the College Board to change its curriculum. College Board officials have since denied they capitulated, but on the first day of Black History Month, they released a revised curriculum that deleted certain topics related to Black history. It appears the Board was eager to keep selling its program to Florida. This past Saturday, Board officials issues a statement saying, “We deeply regret not immediately denouncing the Florida Department of Education’s slander, magnified by the Desantis administration’s subsequent comments that African American Studies ‘lacks educational value.’ Our failure to raise our voice betrayed Black scholars everywhere and those who have long toiled to build this remarkable field.”
Florida is not acting alone. According to the Brookings Institution, nearly 20 States have introduced legislation to ban “any discussions about conscious and unconscious bias, privilege, discrimination, and oppression.” At least nine have succeeded in passing such legislation. These efforts are aimed at suppressing the discussion of uncomfortable truths about our past and even our present. They eliminate responsibility for the collective work that we all must do not only to acknowledge the centuries of harm done to Black communities, but also remedy the lasting effects of these harms.
The continued suppression of history happens in many more places than schools alone, and we are all poorer for it. So much of what we have learned for generations about history, music, culture and more has diminished or even extinguished the role of African American creators, writers, musicians, and others. We must teach our children, and learn for ourselves, the full breadth of the American story – the good, the bad, and the ugly – if we truly aspire to form a more perfect Union.
Philip Graham, former president and publisher of the Washington Post, is credited with saying, “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.” This is especially true with regard to Black history.
For decades, white newspapers barely acknowledged the African American communities in their readership, except when there was a negative story to tell. Brent Staples, an editorial writer at the New York Times recently described the culpability of white newspapers: “Newspapers that championed white supremacy throughout the pre-civil rights South paved the way for lynching by declaring African Americans nonpersons. They embraced the language once used at slave auctions by denying Black citizens the courtesy titles Mr. and Mrs. and referring to them in news stories as ‘the negro.’”
One year ago (February 18, 2022), the Baltimore Sun declared, “We are deeply and profoundly sorry: For decades, The Baltimore Sun promoted policies that oppressed Black Marylanders; we are working to make amends.” The newspaper’s founder, Arunah S. Abell, “was a Southern sympathizer who supported slavery and segregation.” As the Sun editorial board stated,
Instead of using its platforms, which at times included both a morning and evening newspaper, to question and strike down racism, The Baltimore Sun frequently employed prejudice as a tool of the times. It fed the fear and anxiety of white readers with stereotypes and caricatures that reinforced their erroneous beliefs about Black Americans. Through its news coverage and editorial opinions, The Sun sharpened, preserved and furthered the structural racism that still subjugates Black Marylanders in our communities today.
As White newspapers perpetuated lies and negative stereotypes, Black journalism emerged to fill the void. Freedom’s Journal, the first Black-owned and operated newspaper, was founded on March 16, 1827 in New York City. The newspaper’s inaugural broadsheet powerfully declared, “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.”
The Maryland-based Afro-American newspaper began publishing in 1892. As the firm that owned the paper fell into bankruptcy, John H. Murphy Sr., a former slave who worked at the newspaper, borrowed $200 from his wife and purchased its equipment in 1897. By 1922, the Afro-American was the third-largest Black-owned newspaper on the East Coast, behind the Chicago Defender and the Negro World.
The Afro-American, headquartered in Baltimore, now is the oldest Black business in Maryland and the longest-running, African-American family-owned newspaper in the United States. John Sr.’s great-granddaughter, Dr. Frances “Toni” Draper, is the current publisher.
This Monday, I was privileged to join Dr. Draper and other leaders from the local community to unveil a $2.2 million earmark for the AFRO Charities, alongside Senator Van Hollen and Representative Kweisi Mfume. These funds will be used to preserve the archives of the Afro-American and develop a permanent home and research center for these materials, the largest collection of its kind.
The Afro-American has been published for more than 130 years. I have seen a small fraction of their archives and I can tell you that there is so much history that needs to be preserved for the community, the State of Maryland, and the Nation. The project will be digitizing approximately three million photographs, several thousand letters, back issues of the AFRO, personal audio recordings of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Dr. King, and so much more.
Since its inception, the Black press has played a crucial role in the struggle for freedom for African Americans by highlighting issues that mainstream media ignored or misrepresented. As Dr. Draper of the Afro-American wrote recently: “If there were no Black press, would America draft its story honestly and equitably, and in a way that bends – however slowly – towards justice? We think not. The Black press in America plays a crucial role shaping and preserving our community’s history from the perspective of our people, and advocating for a better, brighter day.”
Today, so many Black journalists continue to walk boldly in this tradition, uncovering the stories of our time with an eye toward justice and civil rights. At the forefront of these media professionals is the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), which is headquartered at the University of Maryland, College Park. NABJ was founded in 1975. It is a nonprofit association with more than 4,000 members in the U.S. and worldwide. The organization advocates for diversity in newsrooms, works to create strong ties among Black journalists, and expand job opportunities for Black media professionals. NABJ provides scholarships and works with high schools to encourage Black students to pursue journalism careers. Black history is American history, and Black journalism is essential to telling America’s story.
On March 31, 1968, Dr. King gave his last Sunday sermon – this one was at Washington National Cathedral. He said, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” The obstacles we face are harmful and hurtful. But they are temporary stumbling blocks.
On February 1st, I was proud to join my friend Representative Mfume in introducing the “National Council on African American History and Culture Act of 2023”. Our legislation would create a 12-person National Council on African American History and Culture to advise the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) on the best ways to amplify the work of Black creators, strengthen teaching and learning in schools to ensure Black history and culture is recognized, and provide critical resources dedicated to preserving Black history.
On February 7th, I was proud to invite Governor Moore to be my guest at President Biden’s State of the Union Address. Seated behind President Biden was Vice President Kamala Harris, a woman of color and the first female Vice President.
Before the State of the Union Address, on February 4th, the Senate Curator removed the bust of former Chief Justice Roger B. Taney from the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the Senate wing of the Capitol Building. Progress. The removal was in accordance with legislation I was proud to introduce with Representative Steny Hoyer. Taney, a Marylander, authored the infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857, ruling that African Americans could not be considered U.S. citizens and that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in the U.S. territories. Our legislation directs the Joint Committee on the Library to commission a bust of Thurgood Marshall, another Marylander, for display in the Capitol complex, preferably near the Old Supreme Court Chamber. One Justice sought to prolong slavery; the other – the first African American to sit on the Nation’s highest court – helped to advance civil rights in this Nation due to his successful Supreme Court argument in Brown v. Board of Education, which held that the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place in American society.
Removing the Taney bust from the Old Supreme Court Chamber is making the right decision about whom we choose to honor. Across the Nation, monuments to enslavers are coming down.
In Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Black history is American history. Black History Month is so important because it forces us to face who we were and who we are. In doing so, it helps us with respect to what we ultimately aspire to be: a more perfect Union.”
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