During the close of her remarks at last Saturday’s Black History Month kick-off event at Central Middle School in Riverside, NAACP President and RUSD employee Woodie Rucker-Hughes asserted “We Too Are America,” an allusion to Langston Hughes’ iconic poem calling for unity and social equality.
Woodie shared the story of her move to Riverside in 1969. Four years earlier Riverside had become one of the first large school districts in the nation to voluntary integrate its schools without a court order, and Woodie, a young teacher from Washington DC came to Riverside to teach history. Specifically the history of Black America.
I thought I knew Woodie’s story since I have known her most of my life, but I had never heard her talk about those early days of integrated classrooms, of students so hungry for a history that had been hidden from them that there was a waiting list for the classes, and of administrators so afraid of what might be said in a class called “The Philosophy of Black Thought” that they listened in on lectures and class discussions.
Watching Woodie speak and listening to her tell her story reminded me that there is still
so much to learn…so much knowledge to share…to pass down to the next generation….and the next.
Sharing the stage with her that evening was Riverside Community College District Chancellor Michael Burke, Riverside Unified School District Superintendent David Hansen, and Riverside Black History Month Committee founder Adrian Dell Roberts. Dell reflected on his days at Poly High School when he was allowed to be on the swim team but wasn’t allowed to swim in the Mission Inn pool with his teammates. Hearing the words come from Dell’s mouth reminded me that the memories of segregation and blatant discrimination have not faded away or been forgotten. And too often the vestiges of those memories remain not just in our minds, but in our institutions. Superintendent Hansen acknowledged that “we have to have the courage to do what is best…for every student…every day” and pledged “equity and access” for all students and articulated that this tribute to history is a reminder of the work ahead.
Chancellor Burke told the large crowd that there is still much work to do. Race is still a factor in what some people have called “post-racial” America, he said during his remarks, if communities like Ferguson, incidents like the death of Trayvon Martin, and substantial racial disparities in incarceration and unemployment rates have any educative value, then we know we have not turned the corner yet.
Saturday night’s event reminded me that Black History Month is not just a time to celebrate the great achievements of African-Americans, or complain about the inequities of the past. It is also an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come, what sacrifices were made to get us to where we are now, and how much work remains to truly realize the goals of social equality and racial harmony.
I hope you can join me this Saturday, Valentine’s Day at 10 am in front of Downtown Riverside’s Historic Court House for the 36th Annual Black History Parade & Expo. Or attend an event this month in your community. I look forward to seeing you there.