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Mitchell: Black history might help lift troubled youths’ esteem

A teen shows her boot thwas hit by shrapnel.  |  Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

A teen shows her boot that was hit by shrapnel. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 6, 2013 6:32AM

There’s an oft-quoted saying that goes: “If you don’t know where you’ve been, you don’t know where you are going.”

Because this month is designated as Black History Month, there is the expectation that many of us will be focusing on black achievements.

Frankly, Black History Month observances appear to have fallen off. There’s not nearly the number of educational programs or media attention on black history as there was just 25 years ago.

Unfortunately, the ongoing gun violence also has cast a shadow over this year’s observance.

It’s hard to get excited about past accomplishments when the present looks so bleak.

Indeed, former state senator James Meeks recently shared this thought with Sun-Times City Hall Reporter Fran Spielman:

“Combine an uneducated kid with a fatherless kid and you’ve got a dangerous product of the street at 15. It’s that product of the street that’s causing all of this violence,” Meeks said.

But the young people who are guilty of killing and maiming so many people with guns weren’t created in a factory. They were born of women and men. Most often, these are the kids being brought up without a lot of support or encouragement.

Black History Month is a good time to remind them that black people have been through the worst and still managed to accomplish firsts in every field.

Those who are living amid hopelessness and want need to remember whence we came.

Indeed, “Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events,” by Jessie Carney Smith, is a useful tool to get this powerful message across to African Americans of every age.

“I’ve known young people who have read it and they are just amazed that people have done so much in so many areas and for so long,” said Smith in a telephone interview.

Smith is Dean of the Library and William and Camille Cosby Professor in the Humanities at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. She is the first black to receive a Ph.D. in library science from the University of Illinois.

Smith’s greatest challenge in compiling the book was space constraints.

“You want to add everything that someone had done. I was really excited about some of the newest ones,” she said.

The election of President Barack Obama was an example.

“When I asked young people to tell me some firsts, that is the first thing they say. They are proud of that,” Smith told me.

Jesse Jackson Sr. is listed as the first black American to be a viable candidate for the presidential nomination for his 1984 campaign.

Released in 2013, the 760-page book chronicles the accomplishments of black people around the world.

Black Chicagoans were especially prosperous when it came to establishing businesses.

For instance, in 1908, Jesse Binga (1865-1950) was the founder of the first black-owned bank in Chicago. Binga State Bank was the first bank, owned, managed and controlled by blacks in the North. In 1953, Dempsey J. Travis (1920-2009) established the Sivart Mortgage Company of Chicago, creating was the first black mortgage banking firm.

And Cirilo A. McSween (1926-2008) is listed as the first black to “represent a major white owned insurance company,” New York Life Insurance Company; the first black to sell a million dollars worth of life insurance for any company in one year, and as one of the first blacks to own a McDonald’s franchise in Chicago.

Black Chicagoans also broke barriers in the labor movement.

In 1954, Addie L. Wyatt (1924-2012) became the first woman president of a packinghouse local, and in 1976 she became the first black woman to hold a leadership role in an international union.

As Smith noted, it is hard to know what would make a difference with young people causing problems.

But learning more about the African Americans who have overcome barriers to become “firsts” can’t hurt.

“Make sure the book is available in schools and in local community centers. Saturate those areas with the book. That is one thing we are trying,” Smith said.

The investment will pay off.

“Black Firsts” is a book full of hope.

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