In celebration of Black History Month, Rubenstein Law put together a video to honor contributions of African-Americans to the state of Florida. This highlights a few of the many men and women who have affected the lives of countless individuals throughout the course of our state's (and as a result, the rest of the nation's) history.
President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month during the celebration of the United States Bicentennial. He urged Americans to "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history."
Why We Celebrate
"Black History Month is an opportunity for us all to look back and acknowledge, while also looking forward towards the hopes and promises of tomorrow," said RL attorney Guerda Prosper. She said this time of year calls to mind a culture and a people that have inspired and accomplished so much.
Similarly, attorney Lisa-Gaye Smith finds inspiration from many people in our nation's history. "As a black woman, I pay homage to women like Charlotte Ray and Jane Bolin who were among the first black women to graduate from law school. Many black women in society today, such as Michelle Obama, continue to open new doors for us. They remind us that the sky is the limit, because 'there are still many causes worth sacrificing for, so much history yet to be made.'"
"For me, Black History Month is a living, breathing concept," said attorney DeWayne Terry. "While it is great we celebrate the memorialization of the struggle and accomplishments of black people in America, we must always stay mindful and vigilant of what the dream was really about—freedom in all aspects of life: legal, financial, academic, and spiritual freedom, to name a few."
The individuals featured in the video blazed a trail for those who would follow. They made courageous efforts to bring justice, equality and social change to America. They saw the needs in their own communities and selflessly sacrificed their time, comfort and energy for what they believed in.
Some of Florida's Trail Blazers
- J. Rosamond Johnson - a composer and singer from Jacksonville during the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote the music to a poem written by his brother James. The song would become known as the "Black National Anthem."
- James Weldon Johnson - Author, activist, educator, lawyer, diplomat born in Jacksonville. He wrote the words to the poem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," set to music by his brother J. Rosamond.
- Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune was a teacher/professor, stateswoman, philanthropist, humanitarian and civil rights activist best known for starting a school for African-American girls in Daytona Beach which would later become Bethune-Cookman University. She was not only BFFs with the Roosevelts, but acted as an advisor to the President.
- Eartha M. M. White - Political activist, businesswoman and humanitarian. Born in Jacksonville, she was considered a "renaissance woman." She was an opera singer all while being the first female real estate broker in Jax, the first professional social worker in the city, and operated a soup kitchen from her home. In 2000, the Florida Department of State designated her as a Great Floridian.
- Zora Neale Hurston - Folklorist, anthropologist, ethnographer, and writer who put her hometown of Eatonville, Florida on the map by featuring the everyday life of the African-American community in her novels.
- Ray Charles - Raised in Greenville and St Augustine, FL, he pioneered the soul music genre during the 1950s by combining blues, rhythm and blues, and gospel styles into his music. He wrote and recorded his first songs in Florida (and even dedicated one to his home state: "St. Pete Florida Blues"), before creating chart-topping hits for Atlantic Records. He canceled a scheduled performance at Bell Auditorium in Augusta, GA in 1961, because the dance floor would be restricted to whites, while blacks would be obligated to sit in the balcony. He later performed at a desegregated Bell Auditorium in October 1963 with his backup group, the Raelettes.
- Patricia Stephens Due was one of the leading African-American civil rights activists in the United States. Along with her sister Priscilla, and other college students trained in nonviolent protest, she spent 49 days in one of the nation's first jail-ins, refusing to pay a fine for sitting in a Woolworth's "white only" lunch counter in Tallahassee in 1960.
Did you know...
- "Lift Every Voice and Sing," featured in the video, was recited during Barack Obama's presidential inauguration.
- Before the U.S. took hold of Florida in 1821, there was a coexistence of Spanish, Seminoles and African communities. When Spain lost Florida, Seminoles and African-Americans sought refuge from slavery in Central Florida’s swampland, resulting in the marriage of the two cultures—the Black Seminoles.
- Florida was a destination for many escaped slaves in a reverse underground railroad.
- The Cookman Institute for Young Men, founded in 1872, offered higher education to former slaves and children in Florida. It preceded historical black colleges and universities. It served as a normal (teacher training school) with courses in public speaking, business, printing and other subjects.
Overtown, once called "Colored Town," is one of the oldest neighborhoods of Miami, dating back to the 1890s. In its heyday, it was booming with commerce and social life, which centered around its Lyric Theater.
Tampa was the place for music in the 20th century, attracting big names like Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald. Perhaps other cities also call themselves The Harlem of the South—but did they inspire “The Twist”? You can thank Tampanians for the popular song.
- Because of segregation laws, Afro-Latinos in the Tampa area weren’t allowed to dance at white Cubans’ social clubs, so they opened their own in 1899: Sociedad La Union Martí-Maceo. They named it after General Antonio Maceo and lawyer/columnist José Martí (watch a re-enactment of his speech in defense of black Cubans).
- Brown v Board of Education inspired a Tampa-born attorney and graduate of Howard University, to file many legal actions to desegregate schools and recreational facilities in Florida. Francisco A. Rodriguez, whose parents were Cuban, came back from WWII inspired to bring justice to those without a voice in FL. As a result, he received many threats, but never wavered in his beliefs.
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All images courtesy of FloridaMemory.com