What family doesn’t have stories that they pass down from generation to generation? While these stories and experiences may never grace the annals of any history book, that does not mitigate the importance of these narratives.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion expert Terri Howard recently gathered together with her family to celebrate her uncle’s 100th birthday. Her 98-year-old aunt took this opportunity to share many stories of growing up and surviving in the early part of the 20th century. She talked about lynching and protests, family gatherings, disappointments and celebrations. She spoke of an important part of African-American history and highlighted the extreme importance of oral history.
In her latest T.R.U.E. Talk with Terri, “Black History Month,” Terri Howard focused on Black history and Black history through storytelling. She invited Congressman G. K. Butterfield to shed some light on this topic and the history related to African American oral history.
G. K. Butterfield has an extensive history of serving the community. After earning his law degree, congressman Butterfield founded a law practice in Wilson and served the community in that capacity for 13 years. He is best known for his successful litigation of voting rights cases that resulted in the election of African American elected officials throughout eastern North Carolina. In 1988, congressman Butterfield was elected as president Superior Court judge and in this role, he presided over civil and Criminal Courts in 46 counties of North Carolina. For two years, he served on the North Carolina Supreme Court and he retired from the judiciary after 15 years of service. He was elected to serve the first district of North Carolina in the U. S. House of Representatives in a special election on July 20, 2004, where he continues to serve today.
What is the significance of oral history?
Telling stories across generations is common for many people which is why the oral tradition, Black History Month and the awareness it brings is something everyone can relate to.
“When I was in high school, I developed a growing interest in history.” Congressman Butterfield explained, “I realized then, and I realized now, that so much of history is not recorded and there were many gaps in the recorded narrative.”
Terri Howard explained, “The oral transfer of knowledge from one generation to another is vital to cultural existence and a practice that has sustained Black traditions for centuries”.
Oral storytelling also carries with it rich African origins. Oral stories were often the only way some historical narratives survived when the ability or opportunity to write stories was impossible. Additionally, and unfortunately, history is often written by the conquerors, which means that many valuable stories are silenced by time. By continuing stories over generations by word of mouth, these stories are kept alive.
Archivists and historians have argued that oral histories can be flawed, but oral history interviews can also help expand the historical record with the stories of people who are otherwise left out of it. Additionally, even written history cannot be 100% trusted. The true historian always approaches the historical narrative somewhat wary, so these oral traditions enhance our understanding of the world around us.
What is the significance of Black History?
African American history exists alongside all other historical records. If you talk about the 1960s or the 1940s or even reconstruction as the start of African American history, then you are not connecting the dots to its role in the larger narrative of history. You are isolating African Americans to specific geographic areas and chronological periods.
The cultural history of African Americans begins even before enslaved African Americans arrived at Jamestown in 1619. Although they didn’t come of their own free will, they were not just victims. They were survivors and contributed to the start of this nation although we might not know their names.
The period from 1619 to 1865 was among the worst periods of American history due to the treatment and enslavement of millions of African Americans. Enslaved African Americans made a silent impact during this time by directly contributing to the nation’s economic success and prosperity, in some ways to such an extent that we are only recently coming to terms with the incredible role they have played in our national story.
African American history is more studied during the civil war period, but even though slaves were freed after the war, the plight of African Americans had only slightly changed. Those men, women and children lacked even the most basic assets, owned no property, and had very little money. Everything they had was faith in God and faith in their country that someday their lives would be improved, and families would be allowed to achieve the American dream.
The disenfranchisement of African Americans continued into the 20th century and now still into the 21st as the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the current Black Lives Matter movements have attempted to bring attention to the discrimination that still exists — a chapter of our history that is still being written.
How did Black History Month come about?
Black History Month is a time to celebrate thanks to the forward-thinking of Carter G. Woodson. More than a century ago, Woodson sought to validate the achievements of Blacks. He firmly believed that young African Americans were not being taught enough about their heritage, and the achievements of their ancestors. This observation later transformed into a monthly celebration during February, but their history is something that shouldn’t be confined to a single month of the year.
“African Americans have a beautifully rich history that is as diverse and unique as the rays on a rainbow,” Howard eloquently stated. African Americans come from various ethnic origins from Africa, the Caribbean, to Latin America and all over the world. There are people from each of these groups who have overcome obstacles that built this country and made it better. They stood up for what is right and contributed to many American firsts such as helping to get a man on the moon and a feature film with a majority Black cast.
How can you promote diversity, not only in the historical record but in your community?
“I want to encourage you to get involved in all history and storytelling because this is the way we pass on our history,” Congressman Butterfield instructed. “We're not going to give up! We're going to continue this fight!”
Congressman Butterfield stressed the importance that voting has. It is the responsibility of citizens to know what issues exist and to vote accordingly in every type of election from, “the school board, the City Council, the County Commission, the board of supervisor, state legislators, sheriffs, mayors, governor, Congress, the Senate to the president!” One way you certainly can speak your truth is at the ballot box.
In addition to voting, you can personally promote a more diverse narrative by creating a diary and maintaining a firsthand account of what you're seeing every day in your family and your community.
These are some of the many opportunities for us to reflect on how much more work there is to be done. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream and the dream of so many thousands and millions of African Americans cannot be realized until there is equality for all. It is worth all of us to continue the fight for justice!