What we know today as Black History Month first began as Black History Week in 1926, and was created to amplify the untold stories of black Americans who have made significant contributions and impact to the history of our country. Expanded to Black History Month in 1970, Americans have celebrated the works and lives of extraordinary black men and women like Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, George Washington Carver, and many others during this week for more than 50 years.
That said, as Wesleyan eighth grade teacher Leah Totel explains, "Because black Americans have been a vital part of United States history, we intentionally study their legacy all year." This month, however, while our students are studying individuals from all walks of life, we wanted to share the following inspiring stories of brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ in the black community who God used to bring others to Himself and to overcome incredible obstacles. Using Psalm 139:14, "I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made ..." and Luke 1:37, "For nothing will be impossible with God," as our guide, here are just a few of their stories:
Little did a six-year-old Ruby Bridges know that her parents' decision to send her to William Franz Elementary in New Orleans as the lone black student would change the future of education for so many black children, especially in the South. Flanked by federal marshalls, with crowds surrounding her, a young Ruby and her mother walked into school on the first day, November 14, 1960, to a building void of students whose parents had pulled their children from the school after learning a black child was attending. Ruby's teacher, originally from Boston, was the only teacher in the school who would teach her on that first day, and ultimately for two years. In those first years, Ruby did not eat lunch or play on the playground with other students for her own safety. Eventually, students would be more accepting of Ruby and desegregation would gain steam throughout the South. To read more about Ruby Bridges, click here.
Lemuel Haynes was born on July 18, 1753, in West Hartford, Connecticut, and enlisted as a minuteman in 1774, serving with George Washington's troops in the Siege of Boston in 1775. A warrior on the battlefield and for Christ, Haynes was ordained in 1785 and became the first ordained black pastor. He then became the first black pastor of a white congregation in Rutland, Vermont in 1788, where he served for 30 years. Haynes was known for his prolific sermons speaking against the things God hates, such as slavery, during what is known as the "Second Great Awakening". To learn more about Lemuel Haynes, click here.
After accepting Christ in 1868, Amanda Berry Smith felt the Lord's call and began traveling to black churches in New York and New Jersey. However, her popularity in the white holiness camp-meeting circuit (of which members of the Wesleyan Church were a part) brought her new opportunities to take the gospel throughout the world, including India, the United Kingdom, and West Africa in the late 1800's. Toward the end of her life, Smith had developed a reputation as "God's image etched in ebony." To learn more about Amanda Berry Smith, click here.
Booker T. Washington, born a Virginia slave in 1856, overcame poverty to attend college and seminary, ultimately becoming President of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute of Alabama, now Tuskegee University. Upon his death 34 years later, the Institute had more than 100 buildings, nearly 1,500 students and close to 200 faculty members teaching 38 trades and professions. Washington went on to receive honorary degrees from Harvard University and Dartmouth College, and serve as an unofficial adviser to Presidents Roosevelt and Taft. To learn more about Booker T. Washington, click here.
In 2021, it's hard for any of us to imagine the experiences of these men and women. Yet as Pastor Deon Parker, Wesleyan's Spiritual Life Director, explains, "Without a doubt, I see myself and my children as beneficiaries of the hard work and commitment from individuals like Lemuel Haynes and Ruby Bridges."
May the Lord continue to use these brave Christian men and women—one whose life and work coincided with the birth of our nation and a time of great turmoil in our country, another whose young life, braced by the faith of her parents, changed the course of education for black Americans, yet another who rose to prominence as a female black evangelist, and finally, a man, born a slave who with God's help overcame his past to not only excel at the highest levels of education and business but also forged a way forward for others—to remind us that we are each "beautifully and wonderfully made," possessing gifts and talents designed by our Creator to equip us to fulfill His purpose.
NOTE: Throughout the month of February, Wesleyan students will be studying black Americans like these men and women above, along with those who have served our country as teachers, astronauts, poets, musicians, soldiers, politicians, and athletes, etc.