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Virgina McLaurin’s White House Visit Deepens Black History Month Celebration



American President, Barrack Obama receiving his guest, Virgina McLaurin and his wife, Michelle at the White House during February’s Black History Month celebration… in Washington DC

SHE is perhaps the oldest African-American alive. She had the audacity of a dream fulfilled when she visited America’s seat of power, the White House, presided over by Barrack Obama, a black man like her. She had probably fought fiercely and marched alongside Marin Luther King Jr. for mere civil rights to live within the liberties promised by America’s founding fathers, especially. She dared to dream and hope for that moment in a country her forebears landed in shackles from the African motherland.

That is the story of 106 years old Virgina McLaurin, originally from South Carolina but who now resides in Washinton DC. She danced with joy after meeting President Obama and his wife, Michelle. She had waited all her life to see an African-American in the White House which she fulfilled at this year’s Black History Month.

And McLaurin exclaimed, “And I tell you, I am so happy,” she said. “A black president. A black wife. And I’m here to celebrate black history. That’s what I’m here for.” And that singular moment in history has made McLaurin famous for realizing a long held dream – meeting an African who is president of America!” The Obamas were no less thrilled at her visit that appeared a culmination of the celebration of a month dedicated to celebrating blacks all over the world and their achievements.

However, as the month winds down, Nigeria did not take part in that celebratory that has become a yearly ritual in solidarity with black people all over the world. For the second year in a row, lack of funds has prevented the Centre for Black and African Art and Civilization (CBAAC) from celebrating Black History Month. The centre popularized the celebration in Nigeria from 2007 through 2014 when it entered into significant Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) with some tertiary institutions to advance studies in black history.

The Director-General of CBAAC, Sir Ferdinand Anikwe said the centre has been unable to celebrate the month dedicated to recognising the achievements of African-Americans and blacks generally due to lack of funds. But he added that the celebration needed not be time-bound, as it could still be marked so long its significance is preserved. Anikwe had recently gone to Abuja to defend CBAAC’s budget for the year at the National Assembly. He noted that when approved, the cenre would be better equipped to kick-start some of its activities, improve on existing ones and incorporate others deemed worthy of advancing the black race. Specifically, vigorously promoting African ethics and values embedded in the culture and free African minds from mental bondage is at the heart of Anikwe’s philosophy that also seeks to dredge up lost African ethos and so chart a healthy path for the future.

However, a former Director-General of the centre and Deputy Vice Chancellor, Administration, University of Lagos, Prof. Duro Oni, said it was untenable for the centre not to celebrate the month due to lack of funds. He stated that the centre should have thought of creative ways of raising funds to run its activities through seeking partnerships and sponsorship from the corporate world and individuals of goodwill.

According to him, “They should have sought partnerships and sponsors to get the celebration underway. The celebration doesn’t have to be expensive for it to be effective”.

He further threw light on the importance of Black History Month to African-Americans and the entire black race, including Nigerians. According to the former Dean of Arts, UNILAG, the history of the black man has been a chequered one that spanned centuries of Trans-Atlantic and Trans-Saharan Slave Trades that scattered black peoples all over the world, especially the United States of America, where Black History Month started. As a result of this forced migrations centuries back, Africans have contributed immensely in their various host societies which the month of February highlights.

“If you look at the history of the black man, especially during the slave trade and its abolishment, Africans were taken all over the world and they have made significant contributions to the world’s progress,” Oni said. “But they did so through non-violence, especially the American civil rights movements led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others. Through the non-violent change black effected is significant changes in American society that has paid off with a black man, Mr. Barrack Obama being elected President. Importantly, Nigeria has also gone through a non-violent change of government through the ballot box. It’s something we should encourage.

“So, the month is to celebrate the achievements of black peoples all over the world, in the U.S., Europe, South America and down to Africa here at home. In the modern era, we have figures like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and others and what they have contributed to advance the cause of the black race in creating identity for them”.

BLACK History Month was created in 1926 in the United States, when historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced the second week of February to be “Negro History Week.” This week was chosen because it coincided with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and of Frederick Douglass on February 14, both of which dates Black communities had celebrated together since the late 19th century.

From the event’s initial phase, primary emphasis was placed on encouraging the coordinated teaching of the history of American blacks in the nation’s public schools. The event was regarded by Woodson as “one of the most fortunate steps ever taken by the association”.

At the time of Negro History Week’s launch, Woodson contended that the teaching of black history was essential to ensure the physical and intellectual survival of the race within a broader society:

“If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition; it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization.”

The expansion of Black History Week to Black History Month was first proposed by the leaders of the Black United Students at Kent State University in February 1969. The first celebration of the Black History Month took place at Kent State one year later, in February 1970.

In 1976 as part of the United States Bicentennial, the informal expansion of Negro History Week to Black History Month was officially recognised by the U.S. government. President Gerald Ford spoke in regards to this, urging Americans to “seize the opportunity to honour the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history”.

Black History Month was first celebrated in the United Kingdom in 1987. It was organized through the leadership of a Ghanaian analyst, Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, who then served as a coordinator of special projects for the Greater London Council (GLC) and created a collaboration to get it underway. It was first celebrated in London and has become a national institution. In 1995, after a motion by politician Jean Augustine, representing the riding of Etobicoke—Lakeshore in Ontario, Canada’s House of Commons officially recognized February as Black History Month and honoured Black Canadians. In 2008, Senator Donald Oliver moved to have the Senate officially recognize Black History Month, which was unanimously approved.

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