Reflecting on the importance and necessity of Black History Month
As Black History Month comes to a close, there seems to be growing sense of a broader need for year-round education and appreciation for the contributions of Black Americans to U.S. history.
For some, this raises questions as to the importance of Black History Month: Does having one designated month limit acknowledgement of the accomplishments of Black citizens? Or, does it highlight and raise awareness of those accomplishments?
Peoria Mayor Rita Ali says it's essential to understand the huge role Black Americans have played in the development of the country. She says the Black History 365 curriculum adopted this year by Peoria Public Schools is a positive tool in that year-round effort. But she believes there's still value in celebrating February as Black History Month.
Rita Ali: I think it's an opportunity even though people complain that it's the shortest month of the year, and we should celebrate it 365 days a year, which I agree with that. Yet at the same time, it's an opportunity to really saturate the knowledge of Black history. So I think we continue to keep February as Black History Month because, just like we have other months to celebrate Hispanic history, women's history, to have that focus I think is really good.
Seven years ago, Peoria native Chris Reynolds became the first Black man chosen to lead the Bradley University athletics department. Reynold says the fact there's still a need for a Black History Month in 2022 is interesting and understandable.
Chris Reynolds: I look forward to the day when there is no Black History Month, when we can celebrate people from different backgrounds and ethnicities 12 months a year, and that there isn't one particular month that we designate to celebrate a certain ethnicity. So whether it's people from various ethnicities, certainly the contributions of women, it's something (where) at some point, it'd be gratifying when we don't even have to single it out as being a certain day or certain month where we celebrate certain people. Certainly, the contributions of all Americans have been tremendous and has been a part of our country's history and a part of our story. Certainly Black Americans have made a tremendous impact on this country. But for me, that goes without saying
At the Peoria Riverfront Museum, exhibits such as “American Verses” and “Preston Jackson's Bronzeville to Harlem: An American Story” explore Black history and cultural impact. Everly Davis is the museum's Coordinator of Educator and Student Engagement.
Everley Davis: I think at one point we will get to not have to limit things to a month. At the museum, we kind of do both. We have these exhibitions that go on for a year, right? So the “Community” exhibition, the “American Verses” exhibition, and the “Bronzeville to Harlem” exhibition all came up during March of last year and are still ongoing; “Bronzeville” is going to be here forever. But some of these other (Black history exhibits) will cycle out. So I think by having the Black History Month, it calls attention to something that historically has been erased or ignored, or intentionally omitted. But it is also important for us to integrate it throughout the year. So I think until people can consistently voice the multicultural history of the United States every day of the year, we're going to still need that month, which is why we do both here at the museum.
Ali says having groundbreaking Bradley University professor Romeo B. Garrett as a mentor helped guide her on her path to becoming Peoria's first Black mayor, as well as the first woman to hold the office. She says she feels honored to hold those distinctions in the city's history.
Ali: I see it as a message to say, “Women can lead; Black people can lead,” and it gives me a chance to prove that and to be an example and to be that role model, a role model for little girls, a role model for young Black people to say, “Try to achieve and do your best, and you can do well in life.”
Conversely, Reynold says he doesn't often reflect on his place in Peoria's Black history.
Reynolds: I certainly understand though, the significance of me being the first Black person in this role at Bradley University; I don't shy away from that. However, I will say - and I say this with all the humility in the world - when I look at my background, my experiences, places I've been, things I've done, being Black is just, I mean, I don't know if it really mattered. But what I do think is significant is the impact that I can make on those that look up to me, people that aspire to be in this role. It gives me a platform to be able to let people see that it is possible to be Black and be a Vice President Bradley University. I think that's important.
Davis says the advantages for people of all ethnic backgrounds knowing more about Black history are unmistakable.
Davis: Everyone will gain something from Black history because it shows us how to empathize, how to have relationships, and understand that we are all people. No matter your color, race, creed, gender, if you have done something great or accomplished something, we should celebrate that. I think this is a time for anyone to appreciate accomplishments and achievements.
Davis says honoring black kids In February and throughout the year inspires and uplifts minority students building their confidence and changing the community's trajectory for the better.