Celebrating Black History Month

Bailey talks African American history at Read Alabama

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Alabama author Richard Bailey captivated the crowd at Read Alabama! The Next Chapter on Thursday, as he told of many African American pioneers in the state's history.

Bailey was invited to speak at the author-led series to celebrate Black History Month, and before he told of some individuals featured in his book, "They Too Call Alabama Home: African American Profiles, 1800-1999," Bailey wanted to clear up some confusion on why February is observed as Black History Month.  

"Black history occurs in February because of the birth dates of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Those birth dates come in February, and what we now have as Black History Month began as Black History Week," he explained. "When it was expanded, it was expanded from that one week in February for the entire month. So it's not that someone chose February because it's the shortest month in the year."

Bailey is well-known as a historian of African American history and calls the Alabama Department of Archives and History his second home. 

During his 45-minute speech, Bailey paid tribute to some well-known people in African American history and some many have never heard of in typical teachings.

He started by telling of Florence native James Thomas Rapier, who was the third and last African American congressman of the 19th Century.

"He was a giant during his day," Bailey said, adding that Oscar Stanton De Priest, also of Florence,  became the nation's first African American congressman of the 20th century.

Alabama native Arthur Wergs Mitchell later defeated De Priest for his congressional seat, Bailey said. 

William C. Handy was another prominent African American from Alabama. Bailey described Handy as the Father of the Blues and used Handy's story of perseverance to inspire Read Alabama visitors, many of whom were students.

"Sometimes, when you feel that one door has been closed on you, you feel like life is not friendly, not realizing that when that one door closed, two doors somewhere else might have opened," Bailey said. "Today, he is known as the father of the blues because he had a dream, and he stayed with his dream."

Bailey told of many African American women who were pioneers in their own right.

Alabama native Maria Fearing isn't a common household name, but her impact was felt across the world. She worked for over 20 years in the Congo to spread Christianity and teach.   

Mahala Ashley Dickerson was the state's first African American female attorney in 1947.

"Think of the opposition she encountered," Bailey said.

Astronaut Mae Jemison was the first African American woman to travel to space. Bailey said it's important to tell her story and let people know that she is from Alabama, even though she grew up in Chicago.

Bailey said many African Americans who rose to prominence are often known for the place they grew up, not from their birthplace of Alabama. It's an unfortunate fact that Bailey wants to change.

"We want to emphasize the fact that she's from Alabama," he said. "We want people to not only know that she's from Alabama, but we're proud of her." 

Other African Americans from Alabama detailed in Bailey's speech were Booker T. Washington, the first leader of Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University); William Henry Holtzclaw, who attended Tuskegee Institute and later started Utica Institute in Mississippi; the father of black aviation, Charles Anderson, who was the chief flight instructor of the Tuskegee Airmen; prominent Birmingham businessman A.G. Gaston; boxer Joe Louis; Richard H. Austin, who once served as the Michigan secretary of state; famed jazz pianist Nat King Cole; civil rights activist and pastor Fred Shuttlesworth; the first black mayor of Birmingham, Richard Arrington Jr.; and civil rights leader and American minister Joseph Echols Lowery.

Bailey also spoke of his gratitude to civil rights activists Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. 

Hundreds more unforgettable African American leaders are described in Bailey's "They Too Call Alabama Home," which he said is the only book in the country that details African Americans from a particular state.     

"We want to make certain we do a good job of not forgetting people and the contributions they've made," he said. 

Read Alabama authors are hosted at Bevill State Community College. Two more Alabama authors will participate in this season of Read Alabama — Laura Hunter and Frye Gaillard on March 5 and April 2, respectively. 

Each author will speak at 12:15 p.m. in Mathews Lecture Hall of the Wade Math & Science Building. A reception is always held prior, at noon. Read Alabama is free and open to the public.