Lasting impact

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 17, 2008

It’s the month when the TV movies get more intelligent, the entertainment more diverse and history more vibrant.

It’s Black History Month, where the achievements, contributions, struggles and tragedies of the African American community are revealed and honored.

In many cases, these figures who played such a life-changing role in history are unknown to most. Many times, they are simply ignored, even today in the textbooks used in schools. Their names are just ones that no one has heard about.

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People like Anna Mac Clarke, the first black woman to command an all-white WAC unit. Clarke, a native of Lawrenceburg, Ky., joined the Army soon after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Living on the Douglas Army Airfield in Arizona, Clarke experienced the discrimination of segregation in the Army firsthand and struck out.

She protested the segregated seating in an Army base theater and that action led to the immediate integration of the base. A month later, however, she tragically died from an appendicitis.

Her story was recently brought to life in a Kentucky Chautauqua presentation at Greenbo Lake Resort State Park by actress Haley S. Bowling.

“I had never heard of her. … but look at what she did. She lived a full life at the age of 24. She used everything,” Bowling said.

This kind of theater is an example of the samplings of the history and entertainment that are a part of Black History Month.

But what about the history of the month itself? As little is known by the general public about Black History Month as the people and the events.

The month dates back to 1926 when it was called Negro History Week, started by Carter G. Woodson, director of the then Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Woodson, who was born a decade after the end of the Civil War, was deemed one of the greatest scholars of African American history of his time.

He chose February for his history celebration because the month held the birthdays of Frederick Douglass, the famous African American abolitionist, and Abraham Lincoln.

In its first few decades, blacks almost exclusively marked the event. But before Woodson died in 1950, politicians of both races, especially in the North, got involved with the celebration.

As the African American community as a whole became galvanized during the Vietnam War era with the desire for a unique identity coming up with such catch phrases as “Black is Beautiful,” a week-long observance was not considered enough.

Today, museum and performing arts centers in the Tri-State brainstorm for weeks to come up with special programming for Black History Month ranging from concerts to art exhibits to theater.

The Highlands Museum and Discovery Center in Ashland offers a month of events starting with a gospel night of music.

“Music is one of the ways the black community has survived from slavery to now,” Nancy Smith, executive director, said. “We offer the events because they are a part of the heritage of the community. I have a very loyal committee that thinks this is important. We work long and hard at getting sponsors and a program together that spans the different aspects of black culture and history.”

Coming up at the museum are Apollo Night that recreates the ambience of the famous Harlem nightclub and a Kentucky Chautauqua re-enactment of the life of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave who killed one of her children to keep the child from being captured. There is also a photography exhibit on the underground railroad by Willie Johnson, a Georgetown, Ky.-based artist.

At the Huntington Museum of Art, Bluetrane, a jazz ensemble of Marshall University professors, will present a Sunday afternoon recital.

Offering concerts like this during Black History Month is part of the museum’s mission, says

HMA’s executive director Margaret Mary Layne.

“We have observed Black History Month for several years now and this year’s jazz concert by Bluetrane is just another example,” Layne said via e-mail. “The Huntington Museum of Art has made great strides in diversity and has added a number of works by artists of color to its permanent collection. In addition, the Museum is working to make sure that work by artists of color is seen at various times throughout the year at HMA.”