The Stories Behind Black History Month 02.2.2023 | Teresa Clay-Christmas

In our industry, stories matter. When we prioritize learning the stories of our clients and the assignees we support, we can have a greater impact on their journey and, ultimately, their destination. It helps us to provide more personalized experiences, allocate our resources most efficiently, and deliver the best return on investment! After all, global mobility is a people business, and people thrive on stories!

I’d never fully thought about the stories behind Black History Month. For as long as I can remember, it’s just…. been. The who, how, when and most importantly, the why never crossed my mind. We all have our schoolhouse versions, but I thought that this was the perfect opportunity to dig a bit deeper and, better yet, explore the parallels that can be drawn between this month-long event and an industry that I’m so passionate about!

The Who.

Black History Month started as the brainchild of Harvard-educated historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse Moorland. Woodson tirelessly lobbied to establish Negro History Week as a program to encourage the study of African American history. He dedicated his career to the subject and wrote many books on the topic, his most famous being “The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933)”, which has become required reading at numerous colleges and universities.

The When and How.

In 1915, Woodson and Moorland founded what’s now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, and that organization brought their vision into reality, establishing Negro History Week in 1926. The civil rights movement of the 1960s helped elevate Negro History Week to national prominence, extending it into a month-long celebration. Later, in 1976, President Gerald Ford made things official, proclaiming February to be Black History Month.

The Why.

At the heart of Woodson and Moorland’s vision was a period dedicated to honoring African American Men and Women, those who shaped our past and those carving our future. Negro History Week was chosen to take place the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. President Lincoln, of course, was the 16th U.S. president and paved the way for the abolition of slavery with his Emancipation Proclamation. Douglass was an escaped slave turned activist, author, and prominent leader in the abolitionist movement to end slavery.

This journey of discovery opened my eyes to a world I know startlingly little about. There’s so much Black history that many of us – African Americans specifically – are unaware of, me included. These stories have a profound impact on the lives we live today. They are stories that I want to learn and share with my children so they may have a more holistic understanding of their place in the world and the richness of their Black identity. As much as Black History Month is an opportunity to teach other cultures about the plight and the achievements of African Americans, it’s also a call to action for us (in the Black community) to do the work, ask the questions, and learn the stories so that we can share them with the people in our lives!

I just learned a great one: Did you know Martin Luther King Jr. improvised the most iconic part of his “I have a Dream” speech? According to Clarence B Jones:

King improvised much of the second half of the speech, including the “I have a dream” refrain. It does not mean that King completely made up the words on the spot. In fact, King delivered the now familiar refrain, or at least a version of it, two months earlier at Cobo Hall in Detroit. Remarkably, if you read the text of the Detroit event, you’ll see that he did not recite the same sentences word for word. His mesmerizing words and sentence structure were truly delivered extemporaneously. It’s an example of rhetorical dexterity at its finest.
Clarence B Jones American Lawyer & Former Personal Advisor for Martin Luther King Jr.

Beyond this widely known Black icon, Dr. King, there are countless other Black men and women whose impressive achievements in the fields of science, politics, law, sports, and entertainment have a big impact on our lives today. Here are some of the most notable names we’re celebrating this month by ensuring that their stories continue to be told:

  • Harriet Tubman – Underground Railroad “Conductor,” Civil Rights Activist
  • Alice Ball – Chemist
  • Josephine Baker – Singer, Dancer, Civil Rights Activist
  • Rosa Parks – Civil Rights Activist
  • Mary Jackson – Scientist, Mathematician, NASA’s First Black Female Engineer
  • Maya Angelou – Civil Rights Activist, Author, Poet
  • Joycelyn Elders – First African American U.S. Surgeon General
  • Colin Powell – U.S. Secretary of State, Four-Star General (U.S. Army)
  • Barack Obama – U.S. President, U.S. Senator, Lawyer

Humans are hardwired to connect with stories. Stories help us process information, draw us closer together, bind communities, and even help us attach ourselves to brands or products. So, this year, for Black History Month, I’m leaning into listening to others’ stories (using the list above as a starting point) and more openly sharing my own stories. I challenge you to do the same! Because the closer we come to understanding the Black journey, the better we can cultivate inclusive spaces (including workplaces) and experiences that eliminate barriers to success.

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Written by Teresa Clay-Christmas

Teresa currently serves as Manager of Client Services for Movers International, Weichert’s full-service household goods solution. As a leader of our Inclusion Alliance – a colleague resource group at WWM – Teresa is passionate about raising the bar when it comes to DEI within our company and across our industry.

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