Herald-Whig View

Black History Month a time to remember, refocus

Posted: Feb. 6, 2017 11:45 am

BLACK History Month is an annual opportunity for all of us to celebrate the history and accomplishments of the black community.

Carter G. Woodson, a founder of the Association for the Study of African American History, first came up with the idea of what became Black History Month in 1926. The son of recently freed Virginia slaves who went on to earn a Ph.D in history at Harvard, Woodson wanted to encourage black Americans to become more interested in their own history and heritage.

Woodson chose February for Negro History Week because the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and social reformer and orator Frederick Douglass fall during the month.

Lincoln was born Feb. 12, and Douglass, a former slave, did not know his exact birthday but celebrated it on Feb. 14.

Several places, including West Virginia in the 1940s and Chicago in the 1960s, expanded the celebration into Negro History Month. The civil rights and Black Power movements advocated for an official shift to Black History Month, and the change was made nationally in 1976, on the 50th anniversary of the beginning of Negro History Week.

In West-Central Illinois, Quincy was an important stop on the Underground Railroad because of its location across the Mississippi River from Missouri, a slave state, and the determination of early residents who didn't allow slavery to spread to new territories.

The city launched the first anti-slavery society in Illinois in 1835, and a number of residents played important roles in both the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad.

The most prominent link was the Dr. Richard Eells House at 415 Jersey, one of the region's documented stops on the Underground Railroad.

Eells, a Quincy physician and a leader in the abolitionist movement in central Illinois, became well known in August 1842 when he was caught helping a slave named Charley, who had escaped from an owner in Monticello, Mo., and swam across the river.

Eells was tried, convicted and fined $400 by Judge Stephen A. Douglas, the future U.S. congressman, senator and presidential candidate. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Eells' conviction in 1852, but Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn issued a posthumous pardon in December 2014.

Another early abolitionist, David Nelson, settled in Quincy after he was run out of Missouri by slave supporters. A March 2000 Herald-Whig story said Eells and Nelson "helped make Quincy one of the top centers of the anti-slavery movement from 1836 to 1844," escorting slaves as far away as Canada.

In addition, New Philadelphia was a Pike County community founded in 1836 by Frank McWorter, a former slave who bought his own freedom and the freedom of 16 family members. The fully racially integrated community was established before the Civil War and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

New Philadelphia is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was designated a National Historic Landmark and is included in the National Park Service's National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

Black History Month is a reminder to remember and celebrate our shared past, and to continue to work for a better tomorrow.

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