Reflections: Things that fill my soul in Black History Month

The observance this year of Black History Month has nearly concluded. In many communities and churches, special times were set aside for sharing and celebrating a part of the nation’s journey.

Bishop Woodie W. White

Bishop Woodie W. White

America—as a country made up of immigrants and the native peoples indigenous to the land—holds a multiplicity of cultures and places of origin. The many are brought together, each with their own experiences, into one amazing tapestry.

Black history, of course, is a part of that tapestry, though it is often unknown and distorted, and at times misrepresented. It may also be called African American history, but in its totality it is really American history.

I have enjoyed the times this month when I was reminded, informed and inspired by special observances.

I was privileged to preach at a United Methodist church that takes the month to observe black history during its worship services. The morning I was present, the service included a “visit” from President Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. Dressed in period clothing, they spoke to the congregation words from another era—words of challenge and hope. A litany written for the occasion honored forebears, celebrated accomplishments and identified the challenges of the present and future.

My wife and I also attended a ceremony where a new postage stamp in honor of Rosa Parks was unveiled by the U.S. Postal Service, marking the 100th anniversary of her birth. Several such tributes were held across the country.

Mrs. Parks (1913-2005) has long been recognized as the mother of the Civil Rights movement for an act of civil disobedience. In December 1955, she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a municipal bus in Montgomery, Ala. This was a courageous and dangerous act, at a time when bus segregation was the law in most Southern cities. For such courage she was jailed, and her act sparked a movement, galvanized a people and inspired a nation.

Now people all across our country and in other parts of the world will see Mrs. Parks’ likeness on a stamp. That is black history, and American history.

One hundred and 50 years ago the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted, and on Dec. 18, 1865, Secretary of State William H. Seward proclaimed it to be ratified. It stated: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Slavery was abolished! It meant that my ancestors were no longer property, but were declared by the United States to be human beings. A recognition of what God had done at creation!

I had special thoughts this month of my great grandfather, Thomas White, whom I remember seeing twice as a boy. He lived with my grandfather until the end of his life at 106 years old. His grandchildren and great grandchildren affectionately called him “Pap.”

Frankly, my great grandfather was a bit frightening to me as a little boy. He seemed to always be seated in the same chair, in a room that seemed to always be darkened with little sunlight coming into it. But there was something regal about him, nonetheless. Each time I saw Pap, I greeted him with a hug. All these years later, I remember his embrace.

These experiences and thoughts comprise my special moments during this Black History Month. And oh yes, there is an old gospel song, sung in many black churches, with words that still fill my memory, mind and soul:

“I thank you Jesus, I thank you Jesus, I thank you Lord, for you brought us from a mighty long way!”

Retired Bishop White is bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, in Atlanta.


Steve Horn

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