A Short History of Black History Month and Remembering Our Local Black Leaders

Written by Meghan Gattignolo, Visitor Services Coordinator

Welcome to February and Black History Month! The celebration of Black history has not waned in importance since Black History Month’s conception in 1915. This February follows a particularly devastating year for everyone, but it has also thrown stark illumination on how Black Americans are still treated in their own country. Despite a sum of almost two centuries of work, it is painfully clear the United States as a whole still struggles with the issue of race. Although Black history should be remembered and discussed throughout the year, February provides a meaningful moment for everyone to stop and celebrate Black American achievements and contributions to the society in which we live. 

Black History Month was established early in the 20th century by a concerned historian. Noticing an absence of African-American achievements recorded in the history books, Harvard alum Carter G. Woodson became distressed that Black children were not learning about their own history. In a pointed effort to make a change, he spearheaded a group dedicated to studying and spreading information about African-American history. The group subsequently sponsored a week in February dedicated to calling attention to Black history. Both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln celebrated February birthdays, so the month was a poignant choice. By 1976, the week expanded to a month and was officially observed by the White House. Since then, every US President has established a specific theme for Black History Month. Learn about this year’s theme here: https://asalh.org/black-history-themes/

In Clarksville, we have no shortage of hometown heroes to celebrate this month. Dr. Robert Burt, an accomplished surgeon, established Clarksville’s first hospital. Today, Dr. Burt is remembered in Clarksville by his namesake Burt Elementary School and Burt-Cobb Recreation Center. Burt Elementary was formerly Burt High School, where hometown Olympic champion Wilma Rudolph attended. Clarence Cameron White, a fascinating musician and composer, was born in Clarksville. White was a master of the violin, known for his dramatic compositions and one of the most accomplished musicians of his time. Steller athletes Wilma Rudolph, a native of Clarksville who earned three gold medals in track and field during the 1960 Summer Olympics, and basketball player L.M. Ellis are brilliant examples of hometown champions. Ellis made history as the first Black athlete to sign a scholarship with an Ohio Valley Conference school and graduated from Austin Peay State University in 1965.

Portrait of Clarence Cameron White painted by E. Luster Richardson

Clarence Cameron White portrait

Black and white photo of Dr. Burt and the home infirmary. Text reads "The dedication of the historical marker on the site of the home infirmary founded by Dr. Robert T. Burt; July 2, 1993"

Photo of Dr. Burt and
the Home Infirmary

At the Museum this month, see Clarence Cameron White celebrated with a fresh exhibit inside the Museum Lobby. Also, take time to check out L.M. Ellis’ letter jacket from Burt High School on display in our Challenges and Champions exhibit as well as our in-depth Wilma Rudolph exhibit. Read about how Wilma made a difference in her hometown after returning from the Olympics, and listen to L.M. Ellis talk about Wilma – his friend and neighbor – in the new video recently added to the exhibit.  

Wilma Rudolph poses with her three gold medals

Wilma Rudolph poses with her three gold medals

Austin Peay Special School Basketball team photo with L. M. Ellis standing in the middle.

L.M. Ellis with Austin Peay Special School Basketball team

Prior to the Black History Month creation, the achievements of Black Americans were blatantly ignored by the academic community. Thanks to Carter G. Woodson, Black History Month enables children to grow up with the opportunity to learn about their own history and gain a realization of their own potential.

References:

https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200038858/

https://www.visitclarksvilletn.com/plan/clarksville-connections/medicine-and-science/dr-robert-burt/

https://letsgopeay.com/hof.aspx?hof=44

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_Sp87O74Io

https://asalh.org/about-us/origins-of-black-history-month/

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