Past, Present Pioneers Celebrated
By Carla Garnett
Photos by Lew Bass
On the Front Page...
If history, as some have suggested, is the final frontier for desegregation, then the keynoter for this year's NIH African American History observance could very well be going boldly where few have gone before. Take his latest book, for instance. Keynote speaker Roger Wilkins, historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, said he was inspired to write Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism by three people the late black educator W.E.B. Dubois, the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Amy T. Wilkins, his daughter.
Wilkins explained that in the days of Black Power, circa the 1960s, he and his wife had taken their 6-year-old on a trip to Mount Vernon. During the narrated tour of the estate, the travelers were led to see "the quarters." Amy wanted to know what the quarters were, so her father told her. The child's reaction made an impact. "George Washington owned slaves?" she asked in a loud voice, amid a sudden deafening silence by the rest of the tourists. "Well, what's so great about him then?" Years later, Wilkins said, her question spurred one of his own, which resulted in years of research leading to his current publication.
"I welcome the opportunity to speak to you today when you are celebrating pioneers," he said, "because the only way that I have been able to understand my own life, my own needs as a citizen, as a husband and as a father was through celebrating those pioneers who were my ancestors."
The nephew of the late civil rights activist and former NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins, who along with Marshall helped rear him after the death of his father, Roger a former assistant attorney general in the Johnson administration had read Dubois's writings describing what he called a "double consciousness of the Negro." Dubois had asserted that inside each black in the U.S., two personalities actually were always in conflict with each other the American and the Negro.
Wilkins said he had also spent countless hours being inspired but also bewildered by Marshall, "a true American patriot" who deeply believed despite any evidence to the contrary that there was no wrong that could not be corrected by the proper application of the Constitution.
These three great black Americans spurred the premise for Wilkin's book. The question that had nagged at him over the course of his life and career seemed simple: "Can a black person be patriotic?" Wilkins set out to examine the lives of four acknowledged patriots, founding fathers Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Mason. Wilkins discovered that the impression left by most accounts of history was similar: The American Revolution was a "great white achievement accomplished solely by great white men.
"No wonder [Dr. Carter G.] Woodson [father of Black History Month] thought we had to study some black history," Wilkins said, "because the people who wrote history in this country ground black people and their spirits under their heels in a way to make them feel as people who can have no pride, no dignity and therefore no human power to free themselves."
As much as Woodson deserves to be honored for institutionalizing recognition of the contributions of African Americans, Wilkins said, "There should come a time when we don't need black history month any more, because our history is not a separate history. Our history is part and parcel of American history. You cannot separate it. From the very start, there has never been an American war in which black people have not fought and died, going back to Queen Anne's War in 1701 more than half a century before they thought of having a Revolution."
Despite what may or may not be part of the history books, Wilkins pointed out that black people served as infantrymen, porters, spies, cooks, seamen and harbor and river pilots and many of them won their freedom by fighting in the Revolution. He also came to a conclusion about Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Mason. "Somewhere deep in their souls," Wilkins said, "each of these men understood that slavery was wrong. Secondly, each of these men was aware of the fact that he could not have been the man he was without blacks. These men all led lives cushioned by slavery. They could not have had the leisure to study, to do politics, to read, to write, to meet, to create new institutions, a new army, a new government, without the freedom that their slaves made for them."
NIH's observance began with a message from noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivered by stage and screen actor Frederick Strother. "It is good, so good, that we assemble to lift up our voices in celebration and thanks on this Black History Month," Strother intoned in what the audience could only imagine was a Douglass-esque baritone. "Standing as we do upon the watchtower of human freedom, we cannot be deterred from any expression or movement however humble to improve and elevate the character and condition of any member of the human family. We have tilled [this nation's] fields, we have cleared its forests, we have built its roads and bridges. This is our home. We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future. To all inspiring motives and noble deeds that can be gained from the past, you are welcome. But, now is the time, the important time. Your fathers have lived and died and now you must do your work."
NIH acting director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein paid tribute to forerunners in science. "Our theme for today, 'Celebrating Pioneers: Standing on the Shoulders from the Past,' reminds us that African American History Month is a time of both remembrance and reflection," she said. "Many of our great African American pioneers were scientists, physicians, nurses and other public health experts whose contributions improved the health of all Americans. I want to acknowledge our current scientists. We are very proud of your accomplishments as we continue to work in partnership to meet the challenges of infectious diseases, diabetes, cancer and other disorders."
Later, African Americans who have made significant contributions to NIH's history were recognized. "Our history as people of African descent in this nation is really an impressive one," said Dr. Vivian Pinn, NIH associate director for research on women's health, who read the names and accomplishments of more than 45 of NIH's black pioneers, most of whom were seated in the audience as honorees. "Our rich history should serve as a legacy to guide and empower all of our people as they contribute to the successful diversity of our nation."
In his conclusion, Wilkins stressed the importance of honoring the past, but working in the present. This generation, he said, must repay the great debt owed to those who first paved the paths.
"I've been a fortunate man," he said. "But, as Jackie Robinson said in his autobiography, 'I never had it made.' By that he meant that as long as there were people who were like him, who were ensnared by poverty and racism and hatred, he didn't have it made."
Recalling the lives of those like Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who achieved their own freedom but risked it to go back and help others find liberation, Wilkins said he is often asked why having already achieved tremendous strides in his various endeavors he continues to do such "thankless" and often frustrating work as sit on the Washington, D.C. Board of Education.
He said he tells people, "As long as there is race-inflicted pain in this country, as long as we can't figure out how to educate poor black children in the richest nation on the face of the Earth, as long as there is only one doctor for every 4,000 people and the mayor is closing hospitals in Harlem, as long as all that is happening, there is something to do...I figure I'm going to die sometime and maybe I'll meet some of these ancestors maybe some who never drew a free breath in their life. And they're going to look at me and ask, 'What did you do with your freedom?' I'm going to have to have an answer for them. It's the answer I leave with you: 'I tried to be as strong as you. I tried to hold up my end, just like you did. You were my hope. You were my strength. You were my future. I celebrate my pioneers along with you.'"
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