Who Was the Real McCoy?




Happy birthday, Martin.

If he were still here with us in the flesh, he’d have be 93 years old Saturday. 93!

But Martin Luther King, Jr. is eternally with us in spirit. He is a civil rights champion and icon. We are very familiar with him and have managed to plaster his name on at least one street or school in every city. Some would call that progress. The rest of us...

Quick. Tell me who Frederick Douglass was and why he’s so important. Can you tell me? Do you know any other black historic figures?

Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, perhaps Sojourner Truth and Barak Obama. And now, maybe Claudette Colvin. No disrespect to King, but these have become the tried and true tired few who, with him, turn up for recognition in the shortest month of our Roman Calendar. February. Black History Month.

Do we need to learn about and honor King? Or the rest of these eight people? Heck yeah! But we shortchange ourselves and the world if we hang our hat only on them. There are a great many others worth knowing about.

That’s kind of like having four weeks a year to celebrate key figures of what we hold up as essential American history. Using recycled summaries, for 28 days, to acknowledge the lives of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, The Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, and John F. Kennedy. But for sure, you could pick a different crew, right?

Can you list historic African-Americans you learned about growing up? Who were they? Where mostly did you learn about them? In school, or from TV and news programs? Or did you learn more about them from more recent broadcasts, best sellers, or movies? 

Black historic figures were taught about in my high school social studies classes, but in brief. U.S. History and Civics. MLK was always regarded as the kingpin of civil rights heroes. But I've learned more about history from public TV, public radio and news stories, movies, articles, a little reading and digging of my own, and a lot of knowledge paid forward by my Detroit-born-and-raised husband who's more up on details of the civil rights movement than most people I know, black or white.

You know what's funny? I can’t tell you how many times folks have come to our house, passed through our dining room – where a photo portrait of Harriet Tubman and a poster portrait of Frederick Douglass hang on perpendicular walls – and asked whether or not they were family members of mine. Because my skin is brown and my husband’s is not. 

            I guess it would be funny if it weren’t sad. It's 2022, we put people on the moon in the last century, and I probably wouldn't I'd mistake a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt for a friend's grandad or great-uncle. If there’s an irony here, it’s that those portraits were given by my cinnamon brown self, as gifts, to my white husband, because they were and have long been, his personal heroes.

As for King, Gloria Richardson once said, in all seriousness, that Martin didn't make the movment; the movement made Martin. There would be no freeing of the slaves without Douglass and no success for King without Bayard Rustin and Whitney Young. It's sad but, as a nation, we excise a lot of critical history and gentrify what remains, for the comfort of the victors who presume to control the telling of it. King was a luminary, yes, but he was one of so very many foot soldiers in the battle for civil rights that we can't afford any longer to just tip our hats at him and gloss over the rest.


In what I guess you could call an encore or sunset career, I’m working largely in education, having worked in the past primarily in arts and communications. I’m not a public school teacher, but I volunteered to deliver readings and a la carte art extension lessons in public and private school classrooms for many years, more recently earned an advanced degree in Education, and worked as a Student Teacher in a charter school. I've also earned a couple certifications including a Class-5 TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language). I currently tutor English learners, lead small art classes, and work as a Parapro and a Paraeducator in public schools.  

So I get it. I know full well how little time teachers – whose plates are more than full with the clashing needs of normative, neurodiverse, and emotionally impaired students – had before COVID to scratch up and deliver lessons. It’s even messier now with COVID. 

And I understand that for some folks right now the motivation to make change is not as high as it could be. That getting through another COVID day is plenty. But I'm seeing that as a civilization we’re approaching a make-or-break point in how we handle American history, how we handle the truth both in school and outside of it. My students are from many places. I see how America’s choices impact other cultures. How the whole world is watching and taking cues from us, falling to one side of reason, or the other. We are failing at teaching truth.

In my own classroom, I would want to put up images of historic figures of color, and for third-grade and up, in February I'd have a general lesson on the eight black figures listed here but then require every student to find, read about, and report on, one black historic figure who is not on this list.

I don’t even let most of the adult expats who come to me to learn English get past me without sharing some mention of African-American and Asian-American civil rights heroes and historic figures, or the connections between Asians and Native Americans. Every little bit of overlooked and neglected truth matters, as much as the reasons they've been set aside. We shouldn't thank Thomas Edison without also thanking Lewis Howard Latimer in the same breath. Likewise, we would not have a Rosa Parks without an Irene Morgan




Miss La-la-la-la-la-I-will-not-teach-kids-history-so-as-to-protect-them-from-it, and…Miss La-la-la-la-la-racism-is-a-thing-of-the-past -- those two sisters have got to go. They do not serve anyone well on MLK Day, during Black History Month, or any time of the year, they eliminate safe spaces for kids to cope with and discuss and cope with problems, and stunt the critical thinking skills needed for personal and societal problem solving.

We just need to teach the truth. And more of it. 

The change that moves humanity forward doesn’t happen until we make it happen. Then we become the change we want to see.

Change has always had to be insisted on. Often at great cost, since human relations seem to be subject to the laws of physics. I mean, ask yourself: what are the relatively equal and opposite notions and actions that create resistance to social justice? If you name them, you'll find the pairings to be reactive and oppositional.

Newton's Third Law. It could be a human axiom. One of them anyway.

[ABOVE, CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER LEFT: Elijah McCoy, Latimer's filament, Whitney Young, Gloria Richardson, Mary Ann Shadd Carey, Ann Atwater, Richard Theodore Greener, Ida B. Wells, Lewis Howard Latimer, and Bayard Rustin]

Here's an idea for a meaningful Black History Month. Take a minute to Google one of these people per day. I'd look for an NPR or Wikipedia link. NPR for the best insights and details. Wikipedia for the best summaries. Choose anyone you person want to learn about, as long as it's a different person each day. There's more than 28:, and it won't take more than a minute or two per day to learn something new. Or, as Fred Rogers would say, "something old" of value.

Irene Morgan

Mary Lucille Hamilton

James Farmer (of SNCC)

Whitney Young

Bayard Rustin

Gloria Richardson

Oliver Brown (Of Brown Vs. the Board of Education)

Thurgood Marshall

Ann Atwater

Sarah Keys

Fannie Lou Hamer

Victoria Jackson Gray

Annie Devine

Ralph Ellison

Richard Greener

Katherine Johnson

Dorothy Jean Johnson Vaughn

Mary Jackson

Ida b. Wells

Mary Ann Shadd Carey

Benjamin Banneker

Elijah McCoy

Lewis Howard Latimer

Garrett Morgan

Frederick McKinley Jones

Sarah Boone

Shirley Chisholm

Alexander Miles

Mary Van Brittan Brown

Merze Tate

Dick Gregory

W. E.B. Du Bois

The Freedom Riders. About 400 to choose from. Male. Female. Black. White. Asian. Old. Young. 

James Baldwin


            This list is just a sliver of the history pie. Events and accomplishments that are very rich and rewarding to discover. There’s no honor in whitewashing or discounting them. Why not learn about the real McCoy?



So if our elementary kids’ and nieces,’ or nephews’ teachers don’t introduce historic black figures, that is, beyond the tired few…if or our middle and high school kids’ teachers don’t have time to, or are among those who don’t want to include the facts of history that speak about the far-reaching impact and repercussions of Jim Crow, national outcomes of selective privilege, the Oklahoma massacre, the Detroit riot that was really a Detroit uprising, and so on, maybe we can learn about these people ourselves, and take advantage of teachable moments, opportunities, to share what we've learned. With the inescapable bizzareness that is the daily news, families together more, and COVID’s disruptive impact on daily life and school, there’s really no shortage of them.

We may actually have more opportunities to make change.To be the change. One share at a time.

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