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Living black history: 4 African American leaders to learn from this month | Opinion

We asked four Philadelphians to choose an important figure in black history and tell us: How can Americans learn from this person’s story today?

Clockwise from left: Dr. Ethel Allen, Ida B. Wells, James Baldwin, and James Armistead Lafayette
Clockwise from left: Dr. Ethel Allen, Ida B. Wells, James Baldwin, and James Armistead LafayetteRead moreCOURTESY DR. ETHEL ALLEN SCHOOL / LIBRARY OF CONGRESS / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (custom credit)

To kick off this year’s Black History Month, we asked four Philadelphians to choose an important figure in black history and tell us: How can Americans learn from this person’s story today?

Ida B. Wells’ crusade for justice

Much is being written about the emerging power of the black woman’s voice, especially as we head into the presidential election. But more than 100 years ago, it was the voice of a lone black woman, journalist, and radical feminist, Ida B. Wells, who was fierce in her attacks on segregation, racism, and violence.

In 1884, after the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad threw Wells off the train’s first-class car, she sued it and won in the lower court. That decision was reversed, but the injustice only fueled her passion to take on the issue of rampant lynchings of black men and women across the South. In 1892 she did a comprehensive investigation of more than 700 lynchings. When the results were published as a damning indictment of Southern white culture, a mob burned her newspaper office to the ground and threatened to kill her if she returned to the South. Undeterred, she traveled the country lecturing on the evils of mob violence and to England to gain international support against lynching.

Wells’ strength in the face of daunting obstacles is a daily reminder that we can do no less than use our collective voice on issues of justice and equity. — Renee Chenault-Fattah, lawyer and former TV broadcaster now working on a film on Alzheimer’s and dementia in communities of color

James Baldwin’s difficult truths

In the first picture of James Baldwin I saw, he was dancing. He was stylish and smiling and dancing. He was just pure pleasure, pure joy, and I wanted to read everything he had written.

James Baldwin told the truth. He did this with elegance and grace, in a time when telling the truth got people killed. Baldwin wrote through an incredibly tumultuous moment, during and after the civil rights movement, diagnosing the myriad illnesses that still plague America. He lived abroad, and this gave him the clarity to write about America with critical distance. In each book, essay, or play of his I have read, the message remains the same: Speak brutal honesty in the face of oppression to become free. His characters speak truth as an act of love, an act of protest, and an act of transformation. Considering how slippery we are now finding the truth, Baldwin’s willingness to tell America exactly what it needs to hear is a practice we should all strive for. We should all be searching for truth and speaking truth to power in these divisive, violent times.

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The difficulty of truth is that it requires us to dig deep into our history, our prejudices, and our biases to fundamentally transform ourselves and our communities. The “more perfect union” the Constitution aspires to is still waiting for us to reach out and grab it. — James Ijames, award-winning Philadelphia-based playwright, performer, and professor of theater at Villanova University

James Armistead Lafayette’s wartime bravery

James Armistead Lafayette was an African American slave who at age 33 became one of the most highly placed espionage agents in U.S. history. Working for George Washington’s French commander, the Marquis de Lafayette, James pretended to be a runaway. He used this cover story to join British forces. Through his easygoing personality and diligence, he quickly gained trust and went to work for the British general Lord Charles Cornwallis. In danger every minute, James listened to the general’s plans and passed crucial secret messages of British operations, contributing to the American victory at Yorktown that ended the war.

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Yet for all his valor he was not freed after the war until the marquis visited Virginia and found his old friend. Lafayette wrote a letter to the Virginia Assembly telling of James' exploits as a spy for Washington. The state granted him freedom and hailed him as a hero. He took the last name Lafayette as homage to his wartime comrade. His courage inspires all African Americans who seek to protect the nation through dangerous work and sacrifice. Despite the bluster from some national leaders who would degrade our intelligence professionals, there are citizen-warriors who continue the legacy of selflessness in protecting our constitutional legacy and who reflect deep devotion to the defense of the nation, often at great personal risk. — Malcolm Nance, former U.S. Navy intelligence officer, New York Times best-selling author, board member at the International Spy Museum, and native Philadelphian

Ethel D. Allen’s enduring dreams

When I reflect on the last seven years of my life as principal of the Dr. Ethel Allen School, I celebrate the life of Dr. Ethel Allen — the first African American woman to serve on Philadelphia’s City Council.

In my first year as principal, I researched who the school was named after and what she had done to be immortalized. Dr. Allen spent most of her life in North Philadelphia, where she practiced medicine. This area was considered one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods. She decided the best way to make a change was to become politically involved. In 1971, she joined City Council, where she won an at-large seat in 1975. In 1979, Dr. Allen was appointed secretary of the commonwealth by the governor’s office. She served as a clinician for the School District of Philadelphia.

Dr. Allen encouraged many African American women to enter politics. She overcame racism by becoming a doctor when few African American women were physicians. Through Dr. Allen’s life, Americans can learn to never give up on a dream.

This year, we are celebrating this school’s 50th anniversary as part of our community. It is my hope that her memory will continue to influence the lives of young people for the next 50 years. — Stefan Feaster Eberhardt, principal of Dr. Ethel Allen Promise Academy