University of South Florida

Facts That Unite Us

I started some weeks ago to put together a message on Black History Month.  But as the world watches with horror at what is happening in Ukraine between two peoples whose destinies seemed inseparable only 30 years ago, I thought perhaps now is a best time to recount some thoughts that remind us how America is a nation of many peoples, but all united by their belief in liberty. My own understanding of America is one rooted in the known experiences of my ancestors, both slave and free, and what I’m confident to be factual occurrences in history.  While America’s history is filled with conquest, defeats, tragedies and celebrations, pristine things and imperfect things, it is nevertheless a great history that all Americans can embrace as their own.

Although we usually think of Black History Month as a time to recognize the contributions of African Americans, I’m inclined to view this as a time for all of us to celebrate how Americans as a nation have come to realize all people should be free. We are after all, one nation.

Black History Month was previously known as African American History Month, which grew out of “Negro History Week.”  The latter was the brainchild of noted historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans.  Dr. Woodson, whose parents had been enslaved, was one of the first Black scholars to earn a PhD from Harvard. Later, as a dean of Howard University, a historically Black institution in Washington, D.C., he was dismayed to find that sitting academics were ignoring Black history and the contributions of Black people to American life. So Woodson established the first Negro History week in 1926. Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month.

The histories of white and black Americans are clearly intertwined and interdependent.  Many Americans are not aware that when the slave Nat Turner staged the rebellion of enslaved Virginians in Southampton County, Virginia, in August 1831, Black Africans had already been enslaved in America since 1619; some 200 years before Nat Turner.  The point here is that Blacks were enslaved in America for 246 years, but have only been constitutionally free for 157 years.  As a physician now witnessing the sometimes-racial tensions that occasionally reignite in America, I am reminded that, gestationally speaking, America is still new to its concepts of freedom for everyone.  Many of us would like to believe slavery occurred in the long-ago era of a lesser nation (only 34 American States existed at the start of the Civil War), but our historical timeline indicates that even now we Americans are still newborns to freedom.

So, in the context of America’s history, it was not that long ago that Harriett Tubman was born into slavery, suffered whippings at the hands of her enslavers, later escaped and subsequently made some 13 missions to rescue approximately 70 more enslaved people.  She accomplished this via a network of both white and black antislavery activists following passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.

Last month we celebrated Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his many contributions as one of the most visible spokespersons of the Civil Rights (and Human Rights) Movement and for his advocacy for equality and voting rights throughout the late 1950s and 1960s.  This movement had to overcome unspeakable cruelty, hate, and frequent violence including the death of many Black leaders such as Malcolm X, other supporters of the movement, and Dr. King’s own tragic and untimely assassination in 1968. Nevertheless, even Dr. King’s efforts still accelerated some healing for all Americans from racism.  For instance, I recently saw that some 15% of marriages in America are now interracial, which is fascinating considering that it was only 53 years ago that Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that the freedom to marry outside one’s race cannot be infringed upon by the State (Loving v. Virginia).  I can’t imagine such a statistic ever occurring without the Civil Rights Movement, and so suggest that we all have reason to be encouraged by the gradual progressions of race relations in America.

Recently, President Biden nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson for appointment to the Supreme Court of the United States.  This is an historic first for a Black woman.  While she has unparalleled qualifications for this nomination, some will scrutinize her fitness unfortunately because of her ancestry. However, if Congress appoints Judge Jackson to the Supreme Court, she will serve as a Supreme Court Justice for all Americans, and all Americans can take pride in a continued racial healing in America.  We clearly have far to go before America reaches perfection, but when I consider our freedoms and way of life, I have to believe that Americans are more blessed than most and that we will continue to mature in our understanding and acceptance of each other with each passing year.

Haywood Brown, MD
Senior Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs for USF Health
Vice Dean of Faculty Affairs for the Morsani College of Medicine



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