Heroes of Past and Present Profiled for Black History Month

Throughout Black History Month, the community and ethnic media have celebrated the accomplishments of black Americans who defied the odds and achieved success. The Carib News, The Local and Downtown Express are among the publications that have paid tribute to musicians, historical figures, writers and community activists.

In its recent print edition, Carib News commemorated those who achieved an African-American “first.” Among those mentioned were diplomat Ebenezer D. Bassett, retired General Colin Powell, jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, poet Gwendolyn Brooks and of course President Barack Obama.

The election of Barack Obama signaled the close, the end, of a long chapter and the start of a brand new one that will bring with it many new and difficult challenges. But Blacks the world over can rejoice at this historical first if only for its deep symbolism – now a Black child living in an inner city ghetto in America can aspire to greater heights because President Obama “looks like me.”

The Local has focused on African American Brooklynites who are actively involved in their community in the blog’s daily Black History Month series. The rapper Rev. Run’s brother, Danny Simmons, was among several locals who were profiled for working to empower under-served youth. Simmons is a well-known artist and author.

But lately, Simmons’s art has taken the back seat to his community building. His Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation — founded in 1995 with Simmons’s brothers, the music producer and entrepreneur Russell, and Joseph, better known as “Rev. Run” from the pioneering rap group, Run-DMC — sponsors arts showcases in Chelsea and Clinton Hill for up-and-coming artists. In both neighborhoods, Simmons noticed a divide between poor local kids and the high-end galleries opening nearby, so he wanted to level the playing field.

This week, Downtown Express used the opportunity to look back at the efforts of the slaves who helped build New York. Little was known about these laborers until an excavation revealed a graveyard in the Lower East Side.

Lower Manhattan has a special claim to prominence during February’s commemorations of black history. It is the site of one of the largest African-American cemetery in the United States.

Late in 1991, workers began to excavate the foundation for a 30-story federal office building at 290 Broadway. In May, they came on the bones – hundreds of human remains, all that was left of the thousands of enslaved African men, women and children who had helped build New York City. Slavery was not completely outlawed in New York State until 1827. In the colonial period, slaves comprised around one-fourth of New York City’s labor force. They were consigned to swampy land outside the city’s walls when they died. In many cases, their bones were scarred and deformed by the harsh and short lives they had led.

For every day of the month, Dominion of New York has done a brief profile of notable African American figures. Recent pieces have discussed abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Charles Lenox Remond, radical Dangerfield Newby and singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield.

In a section titled “Black New Yorker,” which provides a brief profile of accomplished individuals, Amsterdam News recently paid homage to Clifford B. Simmons, a businessman and community organizer from Harlem.

In business, [Simmons] has owned and operated Harlem’s Cohen Optical, Papa John’s Pizza – the first in New York City – and Harlem’s first IHOP.

But it is his work with the youth of the community that he most proud of. He began working with youth in the early 1990s, when Mildred Franklin, a member of the Mission of Christian Social Concern at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, challenged him and other members of the church group to do more for the youth.

And lastly, in a piece that questions the validity of Black History Month altogether, The Root interviewed Shukree Hassan Tilghman, a filmmaker who set out to put an end to the tradition of honoring Blacks in February.

It’s an inevitable question as Jan. 31 rolls into Feb. 1: Do Americans still need to celebrate Black History Month? For a black person, questioning the tradition’s existence may sometimes be considered akin to turning in your black card, jokes filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman in his new documentary, More Than a Month.

The film follows Tilghman, now 32, as he takes a yearlong cross-country trip in February 2010 on a one-man mission to end Black History Month, a concept that he finds puts black history in a 28- (or 29-) day box. Through personal reflection, research and interviews (from his forlorn parents, who are none too happy to hear about his plans, to Sons of the Confederate Veterans, who want to establish a Confederate History Month), Tilghman explores issues of race identity and how history is taught in this country.

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