Environmental Factor, April 2006, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
EPA Legacy Luncheon
By Blondell Peterson
Freddie Parker, a North Carolina Central University history professor, was the featured speaker at the EPA Legacy Luncheon on Feb. 18 at the Radisson Hotel in Research Triangle Park. Parker, a graduate of North Carolina Central University, also earned a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He received the UNC Board of Governor's Excellence in Teaching award and was appointed to the North Carolina Historical Commission in 2001 by Governor Mike Easley. Parker has also participated in several PBS television programs about slavery in North Carolina.
In keeping with the national Black History Month theme, "Celebrating Community: A Tribute to Black Fraternal, Social and Civic Institutions," Parker talked about the impact these organizations have had on African American life and history.
Before beginning his speech, Parker encouraged African Americans to work together to gain ownership in businesses and real estate. He reminded attendees of how the historic Hayti area in Durham was once predominantly owned by Blacks. Today, in comparison, there are few African American business owners in the area. He admonished African Americans to work together more, rather than separately, to accomplish common goals.
In regards to the birth of many Black fraternal and social organizations, Parker said they were created because of necessity due to exclusion. For example, in 1787 Richard Allen and Absalom Jones founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Although Blacks were allowed to attend the Joy Street Methodist Church, they were only allowed to pray and worship in the gallery. Rather than be segregated in worship, Allen founded the AME church. The AME Zion churches were founded in 1796 when Blacks left the St. John Methodist Church in New York. Peter William decided to break away when church officials refused to christen a Black child under the name "George Washington. The AMEZ church has approximately 2 million members today.
Parker pointed out that many historically Black colleges and universities have law schools because Whites did not want Blacks to attend their schools. Rather than integrate, Whites chose to build separate facilities at Black schools.
Although Parker paid tribute to everyone for taking time out to celebrate Black History Month, and to examine the contributions, achievements and life experiences of Blacks in this country, he said people ought to be looking at the future of Black History. "We often concentrate our energies on looking at the past, but if we are to be around in 40, 50 or 100 years, it is important that we take care of our bodies," Parker said. "We really need to eat right. It's tragic that 66% of Black females, and 50% of Black males are overweight and obese."
Also in regards to preserving Black history, Parker said Blacks earn 600 billion dollars a year, yet very little of that money stays in the Black community. "We need to keep those dollars in the Black community," Parker said. "Rather than being primary consumers, we need to create [businesses]. That's the future of Black history."
Parker said the infrastructure for support has always been present. "There has always been a free Black community in the U.S.," he said. "In 1860 there were 500,000 free Blacks in the U.S. and 4 million slaves. The fraternal and civic organizations were created in the Black community because Black folks, for the most part, could not be a part of the general organizations. So we began doing for ourselves."
By 1890 Parker said the common theme for Blacks was "self help." That year Black teachers who were educated in the South established the NC Association of Educators because they could not join the White teachers association. In 1970 they merged with the general organization. Likewise, the Association of Black Nurses and the Black Bar Association were formed and later merged with general organizations.
In 1896 the Plessey versus Ferguson court case established that it was legal for Blacks to be separate from Whites as long as the facilities were equal. "We got the separate, but not the equality," Parker said.
"As a result of the segregated system, Blacks began to create," Parker said. "By 1907 there were 14,000 Black businesses in the U.S." Insurance companies, for example, were created because as early as 1885 Prudential Life Insurance Company would not insure Blacks, according to Parker. Prudential officials reasoned that based on their research all Blacks in the U.S. would be dead by 1920, and that would decrease profits for the insurance companies. Consequently, Blacks created fraternal organizations that grew into regional benefit societies whose purpose was to bury Blacks.
The number of Black businesses in the U.S. grew to 40,000 by 1914, according to Parker. "Even in the Hayti area, then known as 'Black Wall Street,' businesses from banks, to insurance companies, to bakeries and tailors flourished," he said.
One of the most popular Black organizations, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was established in 1909 to get rid of segregation and to deal with the phenomenon of lynching, Parker said. By 1910 a Black, White or other was being lynched every other day.
At the same time, the National Urban League was founded in New York to address the great migration of Blacks to the North. "By the thousands, Blacks moved west and north," Parker said. "The tragedy was that they left hundreds of thousands of acres of land behind, in some cases selling for a penny an acre."
"We know that land is the basis of freedom," Parker said. "Wars are fought because of land. Up until the 19th century, you could not become governor unless you owned 500 acres of land, and you could not vote unless you had 50 acres of land."
While the NAACP whacked away at the system of segregation, the Congress on Racial Equality was formed in 1941 to address problems of inequality and racism, according to Parker. "We talk about the march on Washington in 1963, but we don't talk about the planned march in 1941," he said. "Some of the same people who planned the march in 1941 also marched in 1963. When CORE notified President Franklin D. Roosevelt that 100,000 Blacks would march on Washington, he issued an executive order in June of 1941 that was designed to create harmony between the federal government and businesses. Contractors were required to hire and give subcontracts to Blacks.
According to Parker, the killing of Emmett Till marked a pivotal year in the American civil rights movement. "It was a watershed year," he said. "Till became the catalyst for many people even in death. Muhammad Ali said he joined the civil rights movement and became a Muslim because of Emmett Till. Organizations sprang up around the country and people gave money as a result of this killing."
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was born out of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama. Martin Luther King, Jr. decided that the youth needed to get involved, according to Parker. Four years after the bus boycott, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was established at Shaw University.
"We should never forget that the real civil rights movement occurred at the grass roots level," Parker said. "The grandmothers and grandfathers whose names will never reach the history book pages are the ones we need to focus on when writing about our history.
Parker, who was born and raised in Hillsborough, North Carolina, told the audience that history is everywhere, and the best place to start recording history is locally. He suggested that people begin ancestral searches by recording the recollections of older family members. "People think history is always out yonder somewhere, but it's right here," he said. "Your history is just as important as anyone else's."
Parker continued to stress the importance of civic institutions and organizations. "For example, Blacks in Government is a very powerful organization in its own right," he said. "You need to hold on to as many of these organizations as you can--those that have some meat. This is what we need in the Black community. When I say Black community, I am talking about the community at large because Black history is American history. To isolate it or separate it should be only for reasons of study. Whether it's Black history, women's history-all of that is part of the American pie."