February 28, 2019
Written by Linda McFerrin, retired Vice President of Resource Development at United Way
February is Black History Month, an opportunity for people to learn about the numerous, significant contributions that Black Americans have made - and are still making - in every aspect of our daily lives.
But Black History Month does not end for me on February 28 -- I try to celebrate it 365 days a year. There are so many things that Black Americans have done to make contributions to our world, things we use every day, things that make our lives easier, and things we take for granted. For example (and thank you to Judge Derek Mosley for sharing this story on Facebook), a Black American woman named Gladys West was part of the original team of engineers who developed the Global Positioning System (GPS), something that is used in every segment of this global society. We would literally be “lost” without Ms. West’s contributions.
Another example of a Black American who contributed much but does not get the credit he deserves came to me while watching this year's Academy Awards. The movie that won best picture, Green Book, is based on an actual publication called “The Negro Motorists’ Green Book,” originated and published by Victor Hugo Green between 1936 and 1966, the era of Jim Crow laws and widespread discrimination against Black Americans. This book was a critical resource for Black families that wanted to travel to know what establishments they could patronize without fear of being discriminated against. During the acceptance speeches for the move Green Book at the Academy Awards, I did not hear anyone thank Victor Hugo Green for creating the original publication that made it possible for so many Black American families to travel without fear of discrimination. Mr. Green’s contributions must be acknowledged.
But while I try to celebrate Black History every day, I do still believe in the importance of highlighting it during the month of February. If this nationwide celebration moves people to volunteer, open a book, or look something up that they might not have otherwise, that is a very good thing.
I am a grandmother of three, ages three, six, and twelve. Now that I'm retired, I get to spend a lot more time with my grandchildren. Though they are young, I always tell them to read as much as they can, especially about history, and to look to books when they don’t understand something. I tell them my stories about growing up in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement, and how people fought and died for the rights we have today. My goal is to get them excited to participate in their community by voting in every election when they come of age. I tell them “it may seem like you can’t make a difference in this world, but voting is something we all can do.”
Another lesson I hope they learn is The Golden Rule: treat others as you want to be treated, and reach out to lend a hand when someone is in need. Children are not born with bias - in fact, when I brought my grandson, who is Black, to preschool the other day, two little girls who were white ran up to him and couldn’t wait to play. Bias is taught and learned, and comes from a fear of reaching out and getting to know people who are different. If we all make a point of being nice and kind to each other, to strive to do better and better each day, we can make our communities more peaceful and move forward together.
I still enjoy keeping up with the work of United Way, and I think they are helping to make our community more equitable and inclusive for people of color. When I was little, I was fortunate to have grandparents who could afford to buy me books. For kids today who aren’t so lucky, the My Very Own Library program brings free book fairs to schools so kids can have their favorite books at home. Project LEAD recruits and trains young professionals of all races, genders, and occupations to serve on local nonprofit boards, and is changing the landscape of nonprofit leadership. United Way’s Boys & Men of Color portfolio works in partnership with community-based organizations, youth and adult residents, law enforcement, education, health system leaders and faith-based community to collectively address issues facing males of color in our city.
I am also incredibly honored to be the namesake of the Linda McFerrin Award for African-American Nonprofit Leadership, generously created by Cory and Michelle Nettles. This award is not about me - it is about those Black American nonprofit leaders that work hard every day to improve people’s lives.
That is the meaning of Black History Month: celebrating all the things that Black Americans have done, and do every day, to improve the lives not only of other Black Americans, but of everyone in our community, country, and the world.
Applications are now open for Project LEAD. Learn more and apply.
Learn more about United Way’s Boys & Men of Color portfolio and join our Diversity Leadership Society.