Marc Morial, CEO of the National Urban League, painted a picture of the world for University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff students recently, highlighting the contributions made by African Americans from the beginning of slavery until today.
Morial was the keynote speaker at UAPB’s Black History Month celebration held late last week. The entire month of February is dedicated to remembering black history and the contributions black people have made to the world.
Throughout his time at the podium, Morial encouraged every student in the audience to take advantage of the ease of researching the African Americans whose shoulders they are now standing on.
Morial set the tone for his speech by recalling the year 1619, when 20 African Americans were traveling to Hampton, Virginia, on a Dutch merchant ship as indentured servants. He said those servants were promised freedom once the ship reached land in return for their service, but that promise was broken as the servants became the property of people and slavery was born.
“Four hundred years ago was the beginning of that peculiar institution,” Morial said.
“That institution which stands as one of the most heinous acts of mass terrorism of humankind. American slavery was born.”
He then jumped to 390 years later to January 20, 2009, when Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States of America. He said in the period that transpired from 1619 to 2009 to now, African Americans made contributions in art, literature, science, music, agriculture and astronomy.
“One might ask how an enslaved people can be subjected to chains and barbarism and terrorism, restrictions on movement, restrictions on reading, restrictions on learning (yet) make contributions of such a significant nature to the making of North America and, to be exact, the United States of America,” Morial said.
Morial said when slaves were brought to America they didn’t come void of language, skills and culture. They brought with them knowledge of masonry, mathematics and agriculture. He attributed the enhancement of crops like cotton, sugar cane, tobacco, corn and peanuts to the agricultural knowledge base of slaves.
He said that when studying this snapshot of African American history, students are only seeing a narrow slice of the contributions African Americans made not only to the United States but to the entire world. Morial told the students that if no one else, they should get to know the history of Carter G Woodson, the founder of Negro History Week, which is now called Black History Month.
He talked about the many degrees that Woodson obtained and how, during that time, he studied about the contributions of Europeans to American life. Woodson later began studying and writing about the contributions of Africans to North America and the United States.
“He knew as he wrote in his book The Miseducation of the Negro that part of American history was regrettably a systematic effort to downplay, diminish and erase the contributions of people of African descent,” Morial said.
Morial said there is no excuse for college students not to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the contributions of the people of African descent.
“This generation has at the tip of its hands knowledge and information on these contributions … you don’t need a book, you don’t need a book or a classroom or a Powerpoint,” he said.
“You can learn it with your own curiosity and your own determination because you say deep down in your soul that I am going to know about myself … knowing about myself is the only way I will ensure that I can be great.”
Morial also told students to learn about the African Americans who have come before them and succeeded in different fields of study. He asked the students who are interested in law to go online and learn not only learn about Thurgood Marshall and Johnnie Cochran but also William Henry Hastie — the first black to ever be a federal district court judge.
He reminded students that UAPB is black history, being founded in 1873 right after slavery ended. He said they are tomorrow’s black history, but in order to be great they must understand where the source of their power came from.
“We need to know about history, the use of power to build institutions being about lifting each and every generation,” Morial said.
“So, I am asking all of you, yes the students and yes all of us who used to be students, to make a new commitment. We must understand that we can’t educate other communities if we don’t know it. We can’t be proud and strong if we don’t recognize it, and there’s a role model for each one of you in African American history who’s done what you want to do or who has scratched the surface.”