Kentuckians from across the commonwealth gathered Thursday in the rotunda of the State Capitol for the sixth annual Black History Month celebration.
Black History Month was the brainchild of Dr. Carter Woodson, the son of former slaves, who worked in Kentucky coal mines to put himself through school. Graduating from Berea College in 1903, he went on to receive his doctorate from Harvard.
In 1926 he began promoting the second week of February as Negro History Week. He chose February because it coincided with the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglas. In 1976, February was declared United States Black History Month.
This year’s Black History Month Celebration at the State Capitol was particularly significant because it marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the NAACP, or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Among those honored was the late Curlee Brown of Paducah, the first president of the Paducah-McCracken County chapter of the NAACP.
Brown died in November 1976, but his legacy lives on, says John Johnson of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights.
“The person we honor today, not unlike Abraham Lincoln, stood tall when few others were willing to stand at all,” says Brown.
Also speaking at the event was Governor Steve Beshear. He told the crowd seated around the statue of Abraham Lincoln, the state and nation have made great strides in the fight for equal rights, but “racial boundaries have not been completely eroded.”
“There aren’t any more separate water fountains, hospitals or restaurants,” says Beshear. “Nowadays, inequality is evident in places much more difficult to see – in prisons, in outlying neighborhoods, in statistics.”
Beshear wasn’t alone in noting the significance of the election and inauguration of Barack Obama, America’s first African-American president. Lexington Rep. Jesse Crenshaw called Obama “an answer to many of our prayers.”
“In his presidential acceptance speech in Chicago’s Grant Park, Obama said, If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer!” recalled Crenshaw.
But John Johnson of the Human Rights Commission told the crowd, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or taking the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
He pointed to a new report released by the commission titled The State of African-Americans in Kentucky. The commission says some of the statistics in the 23-page report “are shocking,” but were compiled “to shine the light on areas where our state desperately needs change.”
African-Americans are seven-point-five percent of the state’s population, but 30-percent of blacks in Kentucky live in poverty. That compares to 15-percent of white Kentuckians.
And in the Louisville area alone, African-Americans die from stroke 66-percent more often than do whites, 29-percent more often from heart disease and 25-percent more often from cancer – numbers the report says also reflect a national trend.