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Teaching About the Unsung Heroes of Black History

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Evelyn Jones, M.A., executive director for Diversity and Community Affairs in the UAB School of Medicine. (Marvin Gentry, For The Birmingham Times)
By Mary Ashley Canevaro
UAB News

Each year in February, the United States honors Black History Month to celebrate the achievements of Black/African American individuals, recognizing the central role of the Black/African American community in America’s history and highlighting the importance of racial justice, diversity and inclusion, and equity.

“One of the principles of Black History Month is that it is a key part of America’s identity,” said Selwyn M. Vickers, M.D., FACS, dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Medicine. “One of our struggles in this country is painting America as monochromatic or monolithic; that’s not who we were at our best, and it’s clearly not who we’re going to be in our future. Black History Month is a uniquely different time of reflection because of how African Americans got here. That struggle has continually defined our story and identity, and is a part of who we are as we move forward.”

Birmingham’s Place In History

In the broader Birmingham community, Black history and civil rights movements are deep-seated. The narrative of Birmingham and its surrounding areas includes accounts of segregation, racial injustice, redlining and oppression — themes that have lingered for far too long and continue to have an impact on systemic racism today. 

“Birmingham’s storied place in the history of the Civil Rights Movement in this country gives a unique perspective that combines hope and healing as we remember our past, consider the present and prepare for the future,” said Evelyn Jones, M.A., executive director for Diversity and Community Affairs in the UAB School of Medicine. “As we recognize the central role of Black/African Americans in U.S. history, Birmingham is uniquely positioned to take center stage as a national leader in dialogue and action surrounding human rights.” 

As an academic medical center in the heart of Birmingham, existing disparities are continually being identified and confronted in health care — be they racial or socioeconomic. The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated disparities in Birmingham and beyond, signifying where root issues still exist.

Across UAB, leaders continue to uproot longstanding systemic issues, with a goal of continuing to build a system that works for all and provides outstanding, accessible and equitable health care.

Black History Month is a time of reverence and reflection, but also a time to strengthen a personal commitment to end racism, oppression and inequality.

Black History Year Round

Jones says that celebrating Black History Month can take a number of forms. To start, she suggests learning about an unsung hero of Black history. Most of us are familiar with the forerunners of Black/African American history, like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Maya Angelou; but several heroes worked behind the scenes to drive radical change. People such as Shirley Chisholm, Claudette Colvin, Robert Sengstacke Abbott and Jane Bolin fought the good fight for equality in numerous ways. Get to know other influential Black/African Americans who have made a difference across our nation’s history.

Another way to honor Black History Month is to get involved with local organizations. ACLU Alabama seeks to preserve and extend constitutionally guaranteed rights to people who have historically been denied their rights on the basis of race. Alabama Arise is a nonprofit organization with a commitment to racial equity and inclusion, working to promote policies that improve the lives of Alabamians with low income. The Southern Poverty Law Center is an organization dedicated to dismantling hate and bigotry, while seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. 

Jones offers other ideas to honor the lives of those who came before us, and to celebrate Black/African Americans today. Here are a few: 

  • Support a Black-owned business. Check out this list for businesses in Birmingham.
  • Visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The BCRI has mandated social distancing and COVID-19 safety guidelines.
  • Donate to a nonprofit or HBCU.
  • Trace your family history.
  • Engage in healthy conversations about Black history and cultural awareness. A good place to start is with diversity education offered by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
  • Register to vote. Registering to vote in Alabama is simple and easy at vote.org.

UAB Firsts

While Black/African American history at UAB is expansive and wide, a few notable “firsts” helped make the institution what it is today. Several Black/African Americans made history in the 1960s, including Autherine Lucy, who was the first Black/African American to be admitted to the University of Alabama in 1956. She later had her admission rescinded due to safety concerns of violent white mobs and was ultimately expelled. Her story greatly impacted the future of educational justice. 

Similarly, Vivian J. Malone and James A. Hood were two of the first Black/African American students enrolled for classes at the University of Alabama in 1963 — before UAB became an autonomous university. Both students were involved in the incident that became known as “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.” 

On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited segregation in any facilities or programs receiving federal funds from the Hill-Burton Act. Shortly thereafter, Wilma Ann Barnes became the first Black/African American to enroll in any program in UAB’s medical center, which is known today as the UAB School of Medicine.

That same year, James T. Montgomery, M.D., became the first Black/African American physician to be granted staff privileges at University Hospital and the first Black/African American to receive a faculty appointment in the medical school.

On May 30, 1965, Vivian J. Malone received her B.S. degree in commerce and business administration, becoming the first Black/African American graduate of the University of Alabama system. 

Later in 1965, Barbara Walker became the first Black/African American student in the University Hospital School of Nursing, and Sarah Louise Fisher became the first Black/African American student in the University of Alabama School of Nursing, then located on the campus in Tuscaloosa. Additionally, Dr. Clifton O. Dummett of the Tuskegee Veterans Administration Hospital received a clinical appointment in the UAB School of Dentistry, becoming the first Black/African American member of the school’s faculty. 

Samantha Hill, M.D., MPH, faculty liaison for the UAB Underrepresented in Medicine House Staff Council and assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics, recommends several books, movies and documentaries as a way to begin advocating and educating on racial justice. A top pick for Hill is the TV show “A Different World.” Hill says the show “does a great job of displaying the variety and depth of the African and African American experience in higher education.”  

Others on her list include:

Movies and Documentaries

“13th” (on Netflix)
“When They See Us” (Netflix)
“Just Mercy” (Hulu, YouTube, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, Google Play)
“Crash” (Hulu, YouTube, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, Google Play)
“The Hate You Give” (Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu)
“Get Out” (Hulu, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu)
“Fruitvale Station” (Netflix)
“The Hurricane” (Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play)

Books

“Black Like Me,” by John Howard Griffith
“The Sun Does Shine,” Anthony Ray Hinton
“Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans From Colonial Times To The Present,” by Harriet A. Washington
“White Privilege,” by Paula S. Rothenberg 
“White Fragility,” by Robin DiAngelo
“Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” by Bryan Stevenson
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Rebecca Skloot
“How to be an Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi
“Four Hundred Souls,” by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha Blain
“The Black Friend on Being a Better White Person,” by Frederick Joseph
“Why Are All of the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria,” by Beverly Daniel Tatum

Children’s Books

We Are Still Here,” by Traci Sorell
“Your Name is a Song,” by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow
“I am Every Good Thing,” by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James
“I Am Enough,” by Grace Byers

For more ways to celebrate Black History Month, check out the School of Public Health’s DEI celebration trails that honor civil rights in Birmingham with walking tours of historic landmarks, or tune in to a livestreamed concert at Alys Stephens Center on Feb. 25 that honors Black history icons.

To read more stories about Black History, click one of the links below.