We’re coming to the end of Black History Month, an observance we celebrate every February in Canada and the United States. Given the recent death of Nelson Mandela, I felt I should write something about a few great black people throughout history with whom you may not be familiar. We already hear about visionary figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou and (one of my personal heroes) Nelson Mandela.
Instead, this article is dedicated to the unsung heroes of black history — men and women who have risked their lives for the betterment of their communities and countries. They may not have done deeds that received universal press coverage or given speeches that set nations’ imaginations aflame, but in their own way, they have done their part to shape the modern world. Here are three such people.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler, M.D.
Born in 1831, Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African-American woman to obtain a medical degree in the United States; an impressive feat, given the time period that she lived in. But beyond this noble achievement, Dr. Crumpler also worked closely with fellow black doctors to tend to the needs of newly freed slaves and war veterans during and after the Civil War.
Her work was so extensive that she wrote the Book of Medical Discourses: In Two Parts, which is now recognized as a fundamental influence on modern public health policy and American literature.
“It was a significant achievement at the time because she was in the first generation of women of color to break into medical school, fight racism and sexism,” Manon Parry, curator at the National Library of Medicine’s History of Medicine Division, told Time magazine. “It was a common theme that minority females went in to the profession to provide medical care for underserved communities.”
These “underserved communities” and the world in general, owe a great debt to Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, a woman who not only saved countless lives, but changed even more.
Emeagwali was born to a poor Nigerian family in 1954, but he eventually went on to earn a certificate from the University of London, as well as degrees from George Washington University and the University of Maryland.
As a math wizard and child of an oil-bearing nation, Emeagwali’s work revolves around the simulation of oil reservoir detection. I’m not saying that I understand the intricacies of this process, but I do grasp its importance. For those of you that do, he decided to forego the use of multiple supercomputers to detect the oil, choosing instead to use many microprocessors at once.
For his many achievements — including the invention of a Connection Machine, used to calculate the volume of oil reservoirs and other mathematical equations at a rate of 3.1 billion calculations per second — Emeagwali won the Gordon Bell Prize in 1989, one of the crowning achievements offered in the field of computer science. Not too shabby for a kid whose family once couldn’t afford to send him to school at all.
Patrice Émery Lumumba
Last but certainly not least, Patrice Émery Lumumba (born Élias Okit’Asombo) was the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was a champion of nationalism, Pan-Africanism and unity among the African people, in a time when North America still struggled to offer African-Americans equal rights.
In a nation that had been ravaged and torn apart for centuries by the colonial forces of Belgium and the United States due to its rich mineral deposits, Lumumba and his Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) finally won a hard-fought independence from Belgian forces in 1960.
Black History Month is, first and foremost, a time to learn about and reflect on the black story.
Less than a year later, Lumumba — a symbol of the power and potential of the African people — was captured and assassinated by an execution squad from the Congolese breakaway state of Katanga. For their part in the attack, the Belgian government offered a public apology in 2002, expressing their “profound and sincere regrets.”
“In Congo, Lumumba’s assassination is rightly considered the country’s original sin,” Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja argued in The Guardian. “It was a stumbling block to the ideals of national unity, economic independence and pan-African solidarity[…] as well as a shattering blow to the hopes of millions of Congolese for freedom and material prosperity.”
Since Lumumba’s death, Congo has seen much bloodshed. The Second Congo War, beginning in 1998 and ending in 2003, is sometimes referred to as the Great War of Africa, and at one time the conflict involved nine different African nations. The country is still plagued by colonial pressures and intermittent periods of violence and civil unrest, as well as poverty and disease.
Many of you may be wondering why I decided to add the icon of a war torn nation at the end of this article. The answer is this: there is still much work to be done.
Black History Month is not just a celebration of black history, or a time to recognize how far we’ve come as a people. It is, first and foremost, a time to learn about and reflect on the black story, to plan the next steps in this great story we are writing, and share the chapters that we’ve etched onto the world’s great journal with those around us.