Black History Month: Looking Back to Look Ahead

Larry Hughes and family

Larry Hughes, Vice President of Operations, 7‑Eleven

I occasionally get asked, “why should we recognize Black History Month?” I always begin my response by positing why we should study history in general: to better understand how people, cultures, and the world we live in developed. Knowledge of our past helps us to better understand how we got to where we are today and informs how we move forward.

When Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard-trained historian, launched the very first Negro History Week in 1926, it was with this very intent. Woodson wanted to help people better understand and celebrate the contributions of an American segment that was improving our great country in substantive ways, even while still disenfranchised as a group. This annual event would also encourage all Americans to embrace the great potential of African Americans to contribute going forward.

In 1976, Negro History Week became nationally recognized as Black History Month and has been endorsed by every U.S. President since. President Ronald Reagan proclaimed, “understanding the history of Black Americans is a key to understanding our strength as a nation.” Later, President Barack Obama declared that Americans should “reflect on the sacrifices and contributions made by generations of African Americans and let us resolve to continue our march toward a day when every person knows the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

While the pace of progress for African Americans over the past 400 years has at times felt uneven or halted, the tenacity of the American people working together has kept progress alive. Even when denied the opportunity to fully embrace the liberties articulated by our Founding Fathers, African Americans still worked hard to help build our great nation. Despite arriving on our shores in bondage, African Americans contributed to the development of our industrial, agricultural, and transportation infrastructure. Despite being prohibited in many parts of the country to learn to read, African Americans bravely fought for our country in every single American war. Despite being relegated to separate, and inherently unequal, facilities of all types, African Americans have contributed to science, literature, medicine, and more. And despite enduring violence and terror for simply seeking to exercise the Constitutional right to vote, African Americans still worked to enhance the very social, economic, and spiritual fabric that makes America so exceptional.

Knowledge of our past helps us to better understand how we got to where we are today and informs how we move forward

Without Black History Month, many people wouldn’t get the opportunity to learn about so many remarkable African Americans who deserve recognition, including pioneers like…

Granville T. Woods, often called the “Black Edison,” whose more than 50 patents included a device that improved the ability of train stations to communicate with moving trains

Daniel Hale Williams, an African American physician, credited with performing the first successfully documented open-heart surgery in the U.S. in 1893

Madam CJ Walker, a black entrepreneur, philanthropist and the first female self-made millionaire in America

Ron McNair, a Black astronaut and product of the historically black North Carolina A&T State University, who was among the several heroes lost in the space shuttle Challenger disaster.

There are so many African American history makers to honor, it’s difficult to pinpoint just a few. But that’s part of what I love about Black History Month – having an opportunity to celebrate the milestones and mavericks, remember the setbacks and triumphs, and ultimately, to look back so we can look ahead. I hope you will take the opportunity to do the same this month.

Thanks for letting me share my thoughts. And Thank Heaven for 7‑Eleven, and for you!

Editor’s Note: In addition to his day job with 7‑Eleven, Larry is a published author and certified history buff. You can reach him at larry.hughes@7‑11.com