COMMENTARY: Time to Engage in Our History

Selma To Montgomery March historical marker in front of the State Capitol in Montgomery, Ala.

SPEAKING OUT WEEKLY NEWS — I can’t say that I am surprised by the situation in general, because except for February we (including me) generally don’t spend a great deal of time discussing our history and sharing our culture, other than – say our food, music, art, sports, and sense of style. As a result, we leave an incomplete picture of Black history and culture for our children and our children’s children. Think of the great William Hooper Councill, a one-time slave who founded what is now presently Alabama A&M University in 1875. Mr. Councill remains one of a few African Americans with a portrait hanging in the Alabama Archives in Montgomery.

We ought to be sharing all the Black History of Alabama with our kids and the world.

By Jerry Mitchell, Executive Director, North Alabama African-American

Recently the AL.com family of newspapers ran a story on the potential discovery of the Clotilda. For those of us not up to speed on Alabama’s Black History, the Clotilda was the last known slave ship to arrive in the United States in 1860, near Mobile to be exact. Descendants of that ship settled in a community that came to be known as Africatown.

While I have heard this story multiple times over the last 15 years, I never saw it in my children’s history books, from the time they were in elementary school through graduation from high school. Nor have I heard it discussed during observances of Black History month. Sadly, the hope expressed by some descendants and residents of Africatown is that maybe the finding will draw attention leading to federal and state funding.

I can’t say that I am surprised by the situation in general, because except for February we (including me) generally don’t spend a great deal of time discussing our history and sharing our culture, other than – say our food, music, art, sports, and sense of style. As a result, we leave an incomplete picture of Black history and culture for our children and our children’s children.

Think of the great William Hooper Councill, a one-time slave who founded what is now presently Alabama A&M University in 1875. Mr. Councill remains one of a few African Americans with a portrait hanging in the Alabama Archives in Montgomery.

Besides the launch of Alabama A&M College at Normal, Mr. Councill: -”In 1869, at the age of 22, opened Lincoln School in Huntsville for black children in the region.” – Was Publisher and editor of the Huntsville Herald from 1877 to 1884 -Was admitted to the bar in 1883 -Was a political advocate to the state legislature as well as an enrolling clerk – Founded historic St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church in Huntsville in 1885.

And yet we hear so little of his powerful legacy. At our Early Works Museum, children learn about the Civil War but nothing about Councill’s profound effect on Huntsville and the state of Alabama. At our Art Museum I don’t recall a Council exhibit, and he is not someone we readily discuss during Black History Month.

So, what’s the problem and what can we do about it. One of the problems as I see it, is that we keep waiting for someone else (government, large predominantly White corporations, etc.) to spend money to tell our stories. Yes, I know the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC is awesome, but we ought to be sharing all the Black History of Alabama with our kids and the world. The State Black Archives was housed at AAMU and State Reps. Grayson and Hall got some funding early on, but we didn’t think enough of it to keep it going despite the value to our community’s history and culture.

Research shows that it is difficult to develop a sense of history and culture without elaboration on such history and communication about our heroes – those published and unpublished. If we don’t actively engage in our history at all levels, do we really expect our story to be told?