By Julianne Malveaux
We gather together this month to lift up the names that have been frequently lifted, to call the roll of those African Americans who have made a difference. While some names are the tried and true names of important leaders, we need to pay as much attention to the legacies of those whose lives and contributions have been swallowed.
Madame CJ Walker’s life and legacy is no secret. There is a woman who shares her name though, and she is rarely lifted up when the roles of Black women in our nation’s history are mentioned. Maggie Lena Walker, with a second grade education, established Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Va. She was the first African American woman to establish such a bank. Through the Great Depression, and through bank regulation shifts, some version of Penny Savings Bank existed until the early 21st Century. This woman’s contribution has been overshadowed because it is easy to ignore her contribution to history.
Madame CJ Walker garnered public attention, and few realize that she was not the first to do “black hair.” Annie Malone developed a thriving hair care business in St. Louis and surrounding areas. According to some sources, she had at least two dozen training schools in the early 20th Century. Some say she mentored Madame CJ Walker. Many acknowledge that her hair care educational foci were a model for Madame Walker. Did Walker, more flamboyant and better connected, establish a place in history while Annie Malone and Maggie Lena Walker could not? What does it say about Black history when the glitz and glitter are substitutes for sacrifice and substance?
Far too often, we expect leaders to embrace and lift up our Black history. And far too often, we ignore the history in our attics. We forget the uncle who was a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, independent union of sleeping car porters and maids established in the 1920s to advocate for their rights. We forget the aunt who was a domestic worker in New York City. We remember the cousin who was a teacher in Mississippi, Alabama, or Louisiana (the last states to desegregate schools), but we have never explored the sacrifices she made to manage such a segregated environment.
We glorify those whose names are represented in the headlines. We ignore those whose contributions, albeit important, hover on the sidelines. We know that we stand on mighty shoulders, but we are unwilling and sadly sometimes unable to call their names.
These are the names we must call. We call them when we pour libation. We call their names and say “ache.” Our next responsibility is to lift their names up, to claim them as the postal workers, the civil rights workers, and the activists. Our next responsibility is to remind ourselves and those around us that we don’t have to have a name to have “cred.”
We call their names when we read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States that exemplifies “the people’s history,” not the celebrity history. We own our history and affirm our connection to it, when we own the papers in the attic.
As I move around during this Black History Month, people tell me stories that they need to tell others. There was the uncle who took his horn through the “chitlin circuit” backing up major artists, and leaving the circuit when the pull of family took him home. These are the revolutions that will not be televised, the stories that will only be told when we tell them.
We need to tell them year round. It is a travesty of history to reduce an accounting of our heritage to a one-month commemoration of the history that defines our nation. When we are unable to recount the occurrences of Tulsa and Rosewood, of the Red Summer of 1919 and the Poor People’s Campaign, we allow our history to be swallowed and appropriated.
Commemorate Black History Month, if you will. Attend the gatherings at your churches and colleges. And then go home and pull the history out of the attic. If you are a citizen of the world, race notwithstanding, you have some hidden history in your attic. When you share your family stories, you take ownership in a Black History Month that is not about those named, but those unnamed who have made a critical difference in our lives. Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist based in Washington D.C.
Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist based in Washington D.C.