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As he officially proclaimed February as Black History Month, Gov. Tony Evers said the month offers an opportunity to "celebrate and remember the incredible contributions" of African-Americans in Wisconsin and throughout the country while acknowledging and taking ownership of history. 

 

February will always be special to me since it is a month that combines the celebration of black history and Valentine’s Day. Connecting black people with love is an awesome pairing that makes me smile.

Carter G. Woodson, the historian called the “father of black history,” had a tremendous love for African-Americans that spurred him into starting a weeklong celebration in 1926 to highlight contributions of black people to the United States and our world. He designed the celebration to expose scholarly facts so no one could deny what was true about his people. Woodson believed that proof of our genius would stop racists and their ridiculous rants that claimed blacks were inferior, deserved to be enslaved or hadn’t accomplished greatness.

I appreciate the hope shown by Woodson, because 93 years later the truth of black people and our contributions is still not part of most school curriculums, and thousands of youth graduate every year never being introduced to their African-Americans neighbors and what they contributed to each individual neighborhood in each individual town, city and state.

Imagine the change in ignorant thinking here in Madison if history books included black settlements in Wisconsin, accounts of all the African-Americans who explored this land before Wisconsin was granted statehood, and African-American founders who started towns hundreds of years ago that still exist today. Think about the wonder in thousands of black children’s eyes if as they toured the Capitol they could actually see historical photographs of Wisconsin's African-American pioneers, business people, farmers, families and black children like themselves from the 1800s to present day.

I took a group of African-American children on a tour of our state Capitol almost 20 years ago and they asked, after seeing the artifacts, “Where are black people?” We wrote letters asking that our history take its rightful place in the Capitol alongside native people and European immigrants. 

Those children, who never saw themselves portrayed in Wisconsin history, are now adults — yet there has been absolutely no change to include all Wisconsinites or to display African-American contributions on the Capitol of Wisconsin.

While Madison boasts about the “Wisconsin Idea” and brags about the stellar university system with its strong scholarship, there is a community group that wants to make the “Wisconsin Idea” a reality.

The African American/Jewish Friendship Group, begun in 1990 by Jerry and Merle Sternberg, connected Beth Israel Center and the South Madison Neighborhood Center through the leadership of Ms. Charlie Daniels, a board member. The goals were to forge friendships, brother- and sisterhood and better understanding between the two communities. In 2002, the Sternbergs moved back to New York City and the group went into hiatus.

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When the Sternbergs returned to Madison in 2017, the group began again and currently has a committee developing a proposal for a comprehensive curriculum for Madison students grades K-12 to focus on black history, culture and contributions, as well as to invite African-Americans from all walks of life to visit classrooms. The committee also wants to include the civil rights movement, Jim Crow, and current and past criminal justice issues, as well African culture prior to the capture of people into slavery. The emphasis will be on black Wisconsin history. Books, movies and computer programs will be integrated into the proposal.

I am on this committee, along with the Sternbergs, Jamie Murray-Branch and Ald. Barbara McKinney. We want to make Woodson’s dream a reality by ensuring that Wisconsinites of all ages know the history of African-American people in the hopes of making our state a welcoming home for all. Happy Black History Month, with love.

Fabu, Madison’s former poet laureate, is a consultant in African-American culture and arts. She writes a monthly column for The Capital Times. fabu@artistfabu.com

Correction: An earlier version of this column inaccurately identified the race of a person in a portrait in the Capitol.

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Fabu, Madison’s former poet laureate, is a consultant in African-American culture and arts. She writes a monthly column for The Capital Times. fabu@artistfabu.com