From the CEO: Celebrating Black Culture Without the Pop Culture

By Gordon McHenry, Jr., on February 23, 2023 | In News, Racial Equity

This year in Black History Month, we celebrate African American milestones in real time.

On January 18, Wes Moore became the first Black governor of Maryland in the state’s 246-year history and only the third African American governor in American history.

Two weeks prior to Moore’s inauguration, Kyra Harris Bolden became the first Black woman to serve on the Michigan Supreme Court and the youngest person (34) to serve on the court. Bolden is the great granddaughter of Jesse Lee Bond, who died by lynching in Tennessee in the 1930s.

Many who hear about Black history feats this year might think of three milestones this month that drew more attention.

Headlines abounded when NBA star LeBron James became the league’s all-time leading scorer. Less than a week later came two Super Bowl feats: Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes became the first Black quarterbacks to square off in the NFL championship. The Super Bowl halftime show featured Barbadian recording artist Rihanna, who Forbes lists as the wealthiest musician in the world.

While we should celebrate milestones and accomplishments wherever they come from, it seems disheartening that Black achievements in pop culture–particularly those in sports and entertainment—outshine those in other areas. It underscores this nation’s discomfort in telling and retelling Black history—and it comes at a time when some lawmakers seek to keep it out of our school systems.

Memorial to civil rights activist John Lewis at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL

In January, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis blocked a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies to be taught in the state’s schools, arguing that the course violates state law, is historically inaccurate and “significantly lacks educational value.”

There has been a failure in our society to see African Americans, Afro Caribbeans and Africans for our incredibly rich, robust and diverse culture and history. During Black History Month, we need to find ways to identify, promote and appreciate the amazing number of contributions that Black people have made over centuries, here and around the world. Our history is sports and entertainment, but it’s also arts and culture. It’s mathematics, science and invention. It’s business and entrepreneurship.

As a youngster, I was fascinated with the achievements of African American mathematician Walter McAfee, whose work with the U.S. Army helped advance the earliest stages of space exploration. I would later discover that I was related to the McAfees on my mother’s side; he was my second cousin. Like my father Gordon McHenry, Sr., who was the first Black engineer at Boeing to be promoted to management, they were intelligent, gifted, hard-working men who were unwilling to allow people to hold them back.

But all these stories that make up Black history pioneers are based on families that made amazing sacrifices to allow them to break barriers in what were often hostile, racist environments.

Seattle Martin Luther King Jr. Organizing Coalition march in January

At United Way of King County, we envision a racially just community that recognizes the triumphs and struggles of African Americans and other people of color. That recognition has come with a reckoning with our own history as an organization. But it has also come with giving the communities we serve a chance to listen and learn from communities of color.

Most recently, our former campaign chair was Seattle Seahawks great Doug Baldwin, who is arguably best known for helping guide the NFL team to its first Super Bowl triumph. But if you attended our previous Advancing Racial Equity event at Seattle University, you heard about Baldwin’s work off the playing field, namely Vault 89 Ventures, a venture capital firm he founded in Renton. Baldwin, King County and the Renton School District created the Family First Community Center, a facility that provides music, health and sports resources for youth.

Taken from the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery, AL

During Black History Month, we urge you to dispel the notion that the story of a people—any people—is lacking in historical value.

There has been a failure in our society to see African Americans, Afro Caribbeans and Africans for our incredibly rich, robust and diverse culture and history.

United Way of King County president and CEO Gordon McHenry, Jr.

We urge you to also learn about the history of African Americans in our region, from the 1845 arrival of African Americans George W. and Isabella James Bush to the Puget Sound from Missouri to Thelma Dewitty (the first Black teacher in the Seattle School District), to more recently, my friends and mentors, Norm Rice (first Black mayor of Seattle) and Ron Sims (first Black King County Executive). We should celebrate the first Black bank in the Pacific Northwest (Liberty Bank in 1968) and learn the history of redlining that led to the creation of Seattle’s former Black enclave, the Central District.

These are moments in history that might not ever be known in local pop culture, but they helped shape the history of the place we all call home.


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