- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2000

To make this February's Black History Month one that can bring sustainable inspiration and a practical action-plan for the black community, here is a modest proposal: Let's declare a "white-out." For 29 days, let's call a moratorium on any discussion about what white people do to black people or don't do for us. For one month, let's talk about what we can be doing for ourselves.
Too often, the black history that is taught to our young people is a selective account that goes something like this: Blacks came to this country on slave ships; from there they went to plantations and slavery; from the plantations to the ghetto; and, finally, to welfare. Students are taught a history of degradation and disadvantage. If they seek heroes, they are directed to ancient Africa. Dashikis have become the uniform of black studies departments, and the donning of the kente cloth has become an intellectual rite of passage.
But these are emblems of a status that is easily achieved, without necessity of personal accomplishments. There is no call to responsibility when role models are limited to ancient Africa with examples that do not apply to the current environment.
The history of the black struggle in America is incomplete unless it includes the stories of those who achieved economic and educational victories in the face of opposition and oppression, and despite slavery and the Jim Crow laws. For the past 30 years, there has been a virtual gag rule on the stories of these black heroes who could truly serve as role models for our young people. A lifeline has been severed between today's generation and the rich legacy of self-determination and the will to achieve that once provided a foundation for black progress, even against the greatest odds.
In the past, a decline in racial animosity among whites was never considered a prerequisite for black progress. The most successful black businesses were launched by people who did not spend a lot of time thinking about how they could change the attitude or actions of whites. For example, in 1863, white dockworkers, who were angry about blacks being hired at a Baltimore shipyard, called a strike that resulted in the dismissal of hundreds of black workers.
The men who lost their jobs did not picket or stage demonstrations to vent their grievances. Instead, they pooled their resources and formed their own cooperative business, the Chesapeake and Marine Railroad and Dry Dock Co., which operated successfully for 18 years.
Even during an era of blatant and legalized racial discrimination, thriving black enterprises included hotels, theaters, banks, furniture makers, factories, and newspapers. Black business districts in cities such as Tulsa, Okla., and Durham, N.C., were the site of hundreds of businesses including restaurants, grocery stores, haberdasheries, beauty salons, barbershops, and clothing stores as well as the offices of doctors and lawyers.
With tragic irony, our current generation is presented with opportunities that our forebears never dreamed of, yet it is enslaved in ways that our ancestors never were. Today's youths have been indoctrinated with an ideology that has convinced them their shortcomings are solely the result of a racial oppression and that their successes are dependent upon white generosity. This attitude transfers control over portions of black America to the very people some believe created the problem.
Let's declare Black History Month 2000 as a period of liberation from this mindset, and introduce young students to an action-oriented agenda with the following curriculum:
c The first week would offer an introduction to a study of the existence and endurance of black enterprises, even throughout periods of racial oppression and the disastrous Great Depression. Young people would learn how the expansive Fuller Brush Co. was launched in 1935 by an innovative, visionary black man who had only a sixth-grade education and $25 in his pocket, whose enterprises grew to include a newspaper chain with sites in Pittsburgh, New York, Detroit and Chicago, a department store, and a real estate trust.
c Studies in the second week would focus on the role of the church in the progress of the black community. Our youths would be introduced to the American Missionary Association and other church-related organizations who set up schools for former slaves in the aftermath of the Civil War, reducing the rate of black illiteracy from 80 percent to 45 percent between 1865 and 1892. Students would discover the ignored legacy of the burial societies of black churches, which used their funds to provide capital to hundreds of fledgling entrepreneurs.
c The third week's studies would deal with some troubling questions about the relationship of the civil rights agenda throughout the last 30 years and the plight of those who are most in need. "Why are poor blacks suffering in institutions that their own people control, such as the schools and the foster care system?" "Has busing improved the quality of education that black children receive?" "Why is it that D.C., under black leadership for more than two decades, spends more money than any other state in social service programs yet ranks dead last in 21 quality-of-life categories?" "Why is there a steadily widening income gap within the black community?"
c The final week of this revitalizing course of black history would focus on current models that employ the principles and practices of our forebears. Here, students would learn how a neighborhood revitalization effort led by former congressman, the Rev. Floyd Flake, has brought hope, health and economic advancement to an entire community. They would also be inspired by the story of a ministerial alliance in Milwaukee that has forged a partnership with grass-roots leaders, funders, and government agencies and has launched a thriving small-business incubator for entrepreneurs in their low-income community. It has sparked economic renewal in an area that was once considered "off-limits" for business ventures.
There are islands of excellence all over black America of people who continue to adhere to the legacy of their forebears. They go unrecognized, unheralded, and underutilized. The year 2000 is a time when we can change all this. A one-month celebration of the true roots of black achievement would be a modest beginning.

Robert L. Woodson Sr. is the founder and president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and the author of "The Triumphs of Joseph: How Today's Community Healers Are Reclaiming their Streets and Neighborhoods."

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