Black History Month
CELEBRATING AFRICAN-AMERICAN HISTORY
By Dan Wiley
With the election of Barack Obama to the Office of President of the United States of America, Black History Month has for the first time been seamlessly woven into the fabric of the American historical calendar. Americans of all backgrounds celebrated the accomplishments of President Obama as he stepped into “the highest office of the land” and became America’s 44th President.
Proponents of Black History Month enthusiastically acknowledge Barack Obama’s election as the fulfillment of the oft-stated promise of America as the land of opportunity and hope. There is no doubt that Black History Month observances this year carry a special significance with Barack Obama as the nation’s first African-American President, having won 53% of the popular vote.
Black History Month was originally conceived by Dr. Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) in 1926 as “Negro History Week”, which was held during the second week in February. This period was chosen by Dr. Woodson to focus the nation’s attention on the often ignored achievements of African-Americans and to also honor the birth dates of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln which fall in that same week.
Dr. Woodson was also the founder of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, and is often referred to as “The Father of Black History”. Unfortunately, Dr. Woodson did not live to see his revered “Negro History Week” expand in February 1976 into the nationally recognized “Black History Month”. Black History Month’s continued observance and popularity is due in large part to the steadfastness of the Black community in documenting and promoting the many invaluable past and on-going contributions by African-Americans to American society, as well as keeping alive the memories of the hardships and struggles endured along the path to eliminate social, economic, and legal inequalities.
Despite barriers blocking access to equal opportunity, African-Americans continued to demonstrate their national pride with gifted inventions that transformed America and the world. The following is a brief listing:
Brief Facts about the Making of Black History in Jersey City
In Jersey City, Dr. George Cannon, a prominent physician, became influential in Republican Party politics during the 1920’s. He gave the seconding speech nominating Calvin Coolidge for President at the 1924 Republican Convention. He also started the Frederick Douglass Movie Company, which filmed at the Cannon Estate at 354 Pacific Avenue. In addition, Dr. Cannon founded the John Brown Building and Loan Association, 128 Union Street, which became Jersey City’s first Black Bank. His sister, Etta Cannon, became Jersey City’s first Black Public School Principal in 1950. Dr. Cannon's daughter, Gladys Cannon Nunery, was prominent in education as well, and former P.S. 29 bears her name at the intersection of Claremont and Rose Avenues.
In 1961, Jersey City elected its first African-American councilman, Fred Martin. His leadership helped to end local segregation in public housing and encouraged employment opportunities for African-Americans in municipal government.
Forty years later, Jersey City would follow the example of towns like Newark, New York City, Detroit, Washington D.C., Cleveland, Atlanta, and other major urban areas by choosing one of its sons to be the city’s first Black Chief Executive.
In 2001, the late Honorable Glenn D. Cunningham became Jersey City’s first African-American Mayor. He was also elected to the New Jersey State Senate and became the only sitting Mayor in the history of Jersey City municipal government to simultaneously serve in both offices. In addition to serving in local and state public office, in 1996 Mayor Cunningham was nominated by Senator Frank Lautenberg and appointed by President Bill Clinton as New Jersey’s first African-American United States Marshall. As a researcher of local history, Mayor Cunningham also wrote and narrated a cable television documentary, "Hidden Footprints," which chronicled the African-American presence in Jersey City since the 17th Century.
The first daycare center in Jersey City was opened in 1958 by Ms. Alice Jordan Haskins, which became a model for early childhood education programs throughout the State of New Jersey. For many years, students attending local area colleges would complete their student teaching requirements in her facilities to receive their professional certification. Her immeasurable service to working families and the children of our city is indeed praiseworthy.
Dr. Cannon, Mayor Cunningham, Fred Martin, and Ms. Haskins are only a few of the multitude of individuals which represent a much larger narrative of the historic local and national achievements made by African-Americans in Jersey City and across America. Their struggle for inclusion within the total American experience has culminated in Barack Obama’s victory on November 4, 2008. America is a prouder nation today for having been able to bridge a social divide with his election. A new era of promise and possibilities awaits the entire country. Black History Month is special to this purpose and its foundation of hope.
Residents wishing to become better acquainted with our shared past and heritage are encouraged to visit the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Society Museum, located on the second floor of the Greenville Branch of the Jersey City Public Library, at 1841 Kennedy Boulevard. Those interested in learning more about the African-American experience and contributions are encouraged to attend the many activities scheduled at area colleges, schools, and churches. Check local newspapers and websites for program announcements, listings, times, and places.