By: Elia Turner
The untold stories of Black History Month.
[Emmett Till on the left, Martin Luther King Jr. on the right]
Ingrained in the history of the United States of America is racism.
Black History Month, started by Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, was made to bring more awareness to the importance of teaching black history in the school systems.
It originally started out as “Negro History Week” in 1926 when Woodson and his association chose the week of February 12 and February 14 to commemorate black Americans and promote the teachings of black history in order to fight racism.
They chose these dates as they corresponded with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, both of whom had an important role in shaping the history of black Americans
While Negro History Week did not receive the warmest welcome from the nation’s educational systems, it gained the support of few which was one giant step to becoming Black History Month later in 1970.
Black History Month has always received criticism for only promoting the history of one race. Some people believe it should be abolished for this; whereas, others believe that important black history would not even be recognized in school curriculums without it.
However, Black History Month still remains amongst the criticism and so does its purpose: to teach history that is rarely taught.
The first untold story is one that is rarely mentioned in school despite holding such great significance in black history: the story of Emmett Till, 14 years old and savagely murdered in 1955.
While visiting family in Mississippi, Emmett was fooling around with some friends. Standing outside a small store, his friends dared him to ask the white woman at the counter, Carolyn Bryant, on a date. On his way out of the story after buying some candy, he whistled and said “Bye baby.”
When Carolyn’s husband Roy came home, she constructed a fake story of Emmett sexually harassing her, physically and verbally. Roy later went with Carolyn’s Brother Milam to the house of Emmett’s great uncle, Mose Bradley, and forced Emmett into the car.
They drove to Tallahatchie River, forcing Emmett to carry a 75 pound cotton-gin fan and take off his clothes when they arrived. They beat him, gouged out his eye, shot him, then threw him into the river with the fan tied to his back.
His body was found three days later, having been so disfigured that his great uncle could only identify him by a ring he was wearing.
Emmett’s mother held an open-casket funeral and allowed Jet Magazine to publish the photo so the whole world could face the cold truth of racism in America.
A couple weeks later Milam and Bryant went on trial with Emmett’s murder. The jury declared “not guilty” after less than an hour, believing the state did not accurately identify the body.
The publicity of Emmett Till’s murder and trial was the final straw for the emerging civil rights movement in America; justice had not been served and nobody knew how many more and how many other black Americans were and would be murdered as Emmett had been. .
Only recently in 2017 did Carolyn Bryant, while on her deathbed, speak out the truth of her lying about Emmett Till’s supposed alleged sexual harassment in her testimony.
Despite being a major driving force for an important part of American history, Emmett Till is unfortunately rarely discussed if even mentioned at all. And Emmett Till was most certainly not the first.
Described as savage murder by a ferocious mob for an alleged offense that may or may not be true, the lynchings of black people were very popular in the South from the late 19th century to the early 20th century.
Mary Turner was lynched in May 1918. Her husband Hayes had allegedly murdered Hampton Smith, a plantation owner with an aggressive personality. She adamantly denied these claims and was lynched, brutally murdered despite being 8 months pregnant at 20 years old, along with her husband who was just 19.
The mob hung her upside down from a tree, poured gasoline on her, set her on fire, riddled her body with bullets, and cut open her stomach to see if her baby was mixed.
Mary and Hayes Turner were only two out of an estimated 3,446 lynchings from 1882 to 1968.
An extremely popular jazz artist by the name of Billie Holiday, inspired to bring awareness, released a song about the lynchings called “Strange Fruit” in 1939. The song received mixed reactions, some aggressive from Southerners not wanting to abolish the practice. Her record label was reluctant to let the song play.
The opening begins with “Southern trees bearing strange fruit, Blood on leaves and blood at the root, Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, Strange fruit swinging from the poplar trees.”
She continued to sing the song despite facing trouble from Harry Anslinger, the commissioner for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who believed that black Americans, especially jazz musicians, were forgetting their place due to narcotics and demanded that Holiday stopped singing the song.
Upon her refusal, he framed her for purchasing and using heroin which led to 18 months in jail in 1948 and an inability to sing in Holiday’s favorite nightclubs.
Devastated, she began to use heroin and had to be checked into a New York hospital in 1959.
Her condition was fatal and Holiday feared that Anslinger would kill her. Anslinger’s agents and the police handcuffed her to the hospital bed, took mugshots, and refused the treatment that was helping her to recover a little while previously. .
She died soon after. Police arrived at the funeral, only afraid her death would result in a riot.
She never stopped singing her song.
These are only a few of hundreds of stories that Black History Month recognizes.
Nat King Cole, Paul Robeson, Jesse Owens, Sojourner Truth, Phillis Wheatley, Muhammad Ali, Ron Stallworth, and so many more have their own stories of combating racism.
So many aspects of black history have remained untouched as racism becomes a sensitive topic in America.
However, Black History Month is the time where America needs to talk about racism and come together as a whole unit of different races to fight, not only racism, but every other problem America faces as well.
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