Keep your hands off our history, please


Society has flunked its history lessons, failing to understand the depth of Black history, writes John William Templeton.

Just a couple weeks into my first job out of Howard University, in my beat as White House reporter for the Afro-American Newspapers, I chanced upon a release from the Ford administration. As part of the bicentennial, President Gerald Ford was proclaiming February as Black History Month.

Not only was I the first journalist to write about the proclamation, but it reminded me of my graduation trip to New York, where I visited a small building housing the immense Schomburg Collection. I followed up with an investigation of the disparities in research library funding at New York Public Library that led to construction of the current Schomburg Center in 1981.

Five years ago in PRWeek — Two lessons from history: Actions speak louder than words and authenticity counts — I noted the best practices for action speaking louder than words. The first step was acknowledging ignorance.

In reflection, our society has flunked the classroom analogy referenced then. We've gone from a Republican-majority Congress approving unanimously the 400 Years of African American History Commission and Mississippi opening the Mississippi Civil Rights Commission to states attempting to ban schools from studying the work of the National Park Service.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who voted for the legislation in Congress, and new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, another supporter, signaled that their top priority over the next two years will be banning the same Black history that they passed into law.

Public relations professionals should rightly be perplexed. However, the same advice I gave five years ago stands firm. Recognize that you don't know the answer rather than assuming you have to do something because of the calendar.

Having spent most of the last five decades as a Black historian, the depth of the material defies stereotypical appropriation. The best move is to spend the last two years of the International Decade for Peoples of African Descent, a global observance marking the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, learning and supporting the African-American-led institutions that preserve history.

As creator of the 6,000-site California African American Freedom Trail, a joint effort with San Francisco Travel, that plans to open the Sargent Johnson National Museum of African American Art in 2023, we present our 15th annual seven-week Come to the Water: Teaching Black History across the nation from January 22 to March 5, Black American Day.

Highlights include presentation of National Register nominations for the three San Francisco churches that were catalysts for the 13th Amendment beginning in 1852; a February 19 reenactment of the most important speech in African-American history at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa; a February 22 presentation on Robert Russa Moton and the Fulfillment of the Lincoln Memorial at Tuskegee University and the mapping of the proposed Maya Angelou National Historic District.

Black history isn't any more controversial than the book of Exodus in the Abrahamic religions. It is, as the National Park Service notes, the most important social movement of the 19th century, and the impetus for the U.S. Civil Rights Trail across 14 states for its 20th Century deliverance.

Wearing another hat as chair of the Central Brooklyn Economic Development Corp., we are launching an effort announced by Borough President Antonio Reynoso to team with us to create a cluster of 50 Black businesses near our new office on Belmont to directly address the 11% Black unemployment in Brownsville.

After the Red Summers that followed World War I a century ago, Dr. Carter G. Woodson and Robert Russa Moton showed that Black history was a uniting force; after the Watergate debacle, Alex Haley and Gerald Ford found the same truth; and after January 6, Rep. Benny Thompson and the largely African-American Capitol and Metropolitan Police again proved the centrality of Black history to American democracy.

As tempting as it might be to sell soap, the covenant with their Creator articulated in a film like Gina's Journey: The Search for William Grimes is as sacred as any spiritual text and rightly belongs in the hands of African-American denominations, Historically Black Colleges and Universities and African-American museums and Dr. Woodson's organization, the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History. Its theme is Black Resistance. Support them and step aside. Black history isn't for amateurs, equity tourists, attention seekers or the faint of heart.

This is doubly significant in the wake of the Tyre Nichols tragedy. Having lost a family member at the hands of police in 2004, I urge businesses and institutions to respect the profound trauma that 47 million African-Americans are processing, including your own employees.

We wish to plead our own cause.

John William Templeton is author of "Road to Ratification: How 27 States Faced the Most Challenging Issue in American History" and "Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, Vols. 1-4."

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