|HE ANNUAL FEBRUARY CELEBRATION OF BLACK HISTORY MONTH BEGAN IN the United States as Negro History Week in 1926. Even though Blacks had been a significant part of American life as far back as Colonial times, they were deliberately excluded from U.S. history books prior to the twentieth century. An enormous debt of gratitude is owed to historian Carter G. Woodson, the visionary scholar responsible for creating this annual historical focus highlighting the amazing journey of America’s people of African descent. Woodson is most notable, however, for his literary works: The History of the Negro Church (1921) and The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933).
In the concluding days of the American Civil War it was not so much the miseducation of the Negro that was at issue (that would come later), but an obligation to the Negro that the Union general, William T. Sherman, felt America owed those who had survived against all odds under the demonic and brutal system of slavery.
People of African descent had been treated as property for more than 200 years, and in the waning days of the Civil War, Sherman, out of a sense of duty and obligation, ordered that slaves in certain areas of the Confederacy be given 40 acres and a mule.
Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, but they experienced their freedom empty-handed, with no means by which to support and sustain themselves. Tragically, General Sherman’s overture was short-lived. After President Lincoln was assassinated, his successor, Andrew Johnson, revoked Sherman’s orders—further crippling a people before they could even get started.
Only God knows how Black people in the United States have come as far as they have. James Weldon Johnson in the lyrics of his masterful song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (often referred to as the Negro national anthem) captures the saga of a desperate people: “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who has brought us thus far on the way.”
I can never forget my brief exposure to the pains and problems of being Black in America in my lifetime. Although very young in the sixties, I saw up close the struggle for basic freedoms that many Whites embrace without question, even as those same freedoms and rights were denied to an entire group of fellow citizens based solely on their color.
Black people have never felt they’ve gotten fair compensation for two centuries of forced servitude, and, beyond that, another century enduring the vestiges of “Jim Crow” and the widely accepted practices of institutional discrimination and segregation. One must remember: African-Americans have had barely 50 years of enjoying the full freedoms of their country. Think about it; only 50 years.
African-Americans sometimes jest in lighter moments, “Whatever happened to that 40 acres and a mule?” Still, there have been serious efforts over the years via the “reparation” movement to address this historical promise.
Of course, no rational person in the African-American community believes that anything will ever happen, notwithstanding America’s reparations to the Japanese community following the indignities they had to endure during World War II.
Even in the face of these inequities, God has blessed African-Americans as a people, notwithstanding their bad start in this country. Americans of all stripes honor this journey during this month’s focus on Black History.
Every person who calls on Jesus as Lord has come out of bondage to sin. Our freedoms in Christ were blocked. Satan tried to keep us captive, but the emancipation and proclamation delivered on the cross freed us all. In our freedom we don’t expect some spiritual “40 acres and a mule” as a result of Satan’s enslavement; we want nothing from him. But like Abraham we wait for a city “whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10).
Why settle for “40 acres and a mule” when we will have worlds at our disposal!
Fredrick A. Russell is president of the Allegheny West Conference, with headquarters in Columbus. Ohio. This article was published February 18, 2010.