MLK Jr. Day, Black History Month and FIVE FOR FREEDOM

This weekend, we recall Martin Luther King, Jr. with a federal holiday signed into law in 1983, first observed three years later and, after some resistance, observed by all 50 states since 2000. It is celebrated this year on Jan. 21, six days after his actual birthday.

But before the U.S. government recognized King with an official day of commemoration, there was another unofficial annual event intended to highlight black history.

It began in 1926 as Negro History Week, the brainchild of historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and Culture.  The timing was intentional. The second week in February included the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14).

The idea was to use the week as, to use a current phrase, a “teachable moment” in public schools. Initial response was lukewarm, but Woodson regarded it as “one of the most fortunate steps ever taken by the Association.”

Said Woodson: “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization.”

What began as a single week has, since 1970 in the United States, been Black History Month. The month of February has become a peg for many events that focus on black history. But these days, when Black Lives Matter is a year-round theme, Black History Month may seem to some like racially segregating history into a single time frame. What began as a necessary corrective now is a way to concentrate a history that should be just as important throughout the year.

Still, for marketing purposes, it’s tempting to bunch “black history” into one month.  It is, after all, now a brand. In the current environment, it’s also commercially convenient. Initially, it seemed tempting to publish FIVE FOR FREEDOM: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army during Black History Month, or, if not then, in October, around the time of the ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859.  Instead, Chicago Review Press published FFF on June 1.

Surprise!  Black History Month was not a factor in the publication, publicity or promotion of FFF.  Thus, since the rollout, I’ve had the honor and opportunity to tell the FFF story on  more than 20 occasions. And despite my somewhat cynical view of Black History Month, I have SEVEN events scheduled next month. For FFF, that’s a record for one lunar cycle. And I am frankly delighted that there remains an audience eager to hear the story of these five formerly “hidden figures” nine months after publication.

All events are posted on this website.  But it might be easier to simply list them here:

Feb. 8 – Montgomery County Historical Society, Rockville Red Brick Courthouse, 7 p.m.

Feb. 10 – Manassas Museum, 9101 Prince William Street, at 1:30 p.m.

Feb. 12 – Oberlin, Ohio, sponsored by Oberlin Heritage Center

Feb. 17 – Hurston/Wright Foundation fundraiser (by invitation only)

Feb. 19 – Upshur Street Books (Rebranding as Loyalty Books,  @LoyaltyBooks)

Feb 23 – Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum

Feb. 24 – Leesburg, Thomas Balch Library

And, even before we get to February, I have two speaking engagements, both on Jan 26. At 9:15 a.m., I will be keynoting the Montgomery County History Conference, to be held at the Germantown campus of Montgomery College. This is an annual event, and my topic is: “Post-Bellum Montgomery County: Coming to Terms with Our Southern Past.” The county historical society is promoting my talk as “provocative.”  But I prefer to call it simply factual.

Later that same day, at 1 p.m., I’ll be at the Barnes & Noble, 2225 Georgia Ave. NW, at Howard University discussing FIVE FOR FREEDOM.   I am thrilled to be bringing this important story to the Howard campus and would love to see some of you there.  The BN@Howard is .37 miles from the Shaw Metro station.  Beyond February, there are more events scheduled, in May (Washington Writers Conference, panel on “Hidden Histories”), September in Wheeling, West Virginia, and October in Detroit, Michigan.

Meanwhile, FFF was favorably reviewed in the Civil War Times: “Well-written and intriguing…The narrative makes a wonderful read in which five African Americans, not content with just their own freedom, joined the larger March for Freedom for all.”

Renowned Civil War-era historian Eric Foner wrote (in a review in The Nation of the new Frederick Douglass biography): “Five black men [joined] Brown’s private army; their story is compellingly told in a new book, Five for Freedom, by Eugene L. Meyer.”

And Deborah Kalb interviewed me for her author blog.  Click here.

Finally, a Canadian film producer who read FFF reached out to me to participate in a six-part documentary about slavery.  The Harpers Ferry segment will be included in the Abolition episode.  The partial government shutdown has caused the postponement of filming there (the permits for this National Park Service property must be approved, and, well, you know).  The series is to be aired next February or March here in the States, in Canada and in the UK.

Happily, FFF seems to have taken on a life of its own. I am beyond thrilled that these five “hidden figures” are hidden no more. And, as a Park Service ranger told me, “This is not a story of the past. This is a story from the past that is relevant to the present.”

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