Black History Month: Administrator Lisa P. Jackson: Black Women in History and Culture

By Administrator Lisa P. Jackson

Every February, our nation marks Black History Month. In 2012 we have spent the month honoring the work of African American women who shaped our country and earned their place in American history.

As an African American woman, this has been a time for me to reflect on the women who ensured that my generation would have every possible opportunity. I grew up in the years after segregation ended. I was able to get good education and had access to the rights of every American. Rather than fearing that I would be denied entrance to college because of prejudice or unequal treatment under the law, my parents fully expected me to go on to higher education and use that opportunity to chart the course of my own life.

Without the work of African American women through the years, my life and the lives of millions of Americans would not be what they are today. That is why we take this time to share that history with others, and recognize that the stories of black women in American history – fighting against slavery, struggling for equality and voting rights, refusing to be silent in the face of violence and oppression – are stories that matter to every American.

Those stories begin as far back as the earliest days of our country, when a Massachusetts slave named Phillis Wheatley learned to read and write and became our country’s earliest black poet. They include Harriet Tubman and the women of the Underground Railroad, who put their lives at risk to bring their fellow Americans to freedom.

They are the stories of brave women like Ida Wells who, in the wake of the Civil War, used her writing to expose the brutality and intimidation of lynch mobs. They are actresses like Dorothy Dandridge and authors like Zora Neale Hurston, who broke through barriers to reach new audiences and give African American women new venues for expression.

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, the Montgomery Bus Boycotts started with the actions of an African American woman: Rosa Parks, refusing to move to the back of the bus. Throughout the movement, women like Septima Clark, Coretta Scott King, Ella Baker, Myrlie Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer and others marched and spoke and worked to make our nation a more equal place, where men and women of every race had the same fair shot. One of those women, Dr. Dorothy Height, started her Civil Rights work at 25 years old, and marched beside Dr. King in Washington. I met her not long ago, when she was 96 years old and still taking action to ensure equality and opportunity for every American.

Alongside these names from the history books are the mothers, sisters and daughters whose stories we may not have heard, but who played a critical role nonetheless. I think of my mother, her mother and my aunts, and the times they lived through. I know how important their perseverance has been in nurturing me and the women of my generation, and passing down the values and culture that give us strength.

As the old saying goes, “To whom much is given, much is required,” and for today’s generations the contributions of African American women through the years is both an inspiration and a responsibility. From them, we know that nothing will inspire future leaders like the example we set. It is important today that we nurture the talents of young women and empower them to confront the challenges ahead.

That is what celebrating Black History Month has always been about: remembering our past so that we can strengthen our future. The work of African American women through the years shows us how to fulfill the promise of this great nation, and move us all toward a more perfect union. Now it is our turn.

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