Alan Ferdman | Learning in Black History Month

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Black History Month is a time to remember, commemorate and celebrate the contributions African-Americans have provided to the United States. It was initiated in 1926 as an annual weeklong celebration in February, commensurate with the birthdays of Fredrick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, and has been designated to last all month long since 1976.

This year when I decided to pen a column on Black History Month, I thought about what I had learned in school and set out to first research what I thought I knew. But sometimes, a person comes to realize, what they thought they knew, might not be correct. In this case, I found out George Washington Carver did not invent peanut butter as I had been taught. The truth is Marcellus Gilmore Edson was first to patent “peanut paste.”

Marcellus Gilmore Edson was born in Canada. He developed the idea of peanut paste for people who could not chew solid food. In 1884 Edson was awarded US Patent No. 306727. His cooled product had “a consistency like that of butter, lard, or ointment,” according to his patent application. He included the mixing of sugar into the paste to harden its consistency. 

None of what I found out, however, takes away from the 300 patents George Washington Carver authored, making him the most prominent Black scientist in the early 20th century.  “Carver developed techniques to improve soils depleted by repeated plantings of cotton. He wanted poor farmers to grow other crops, such as peanuts and sweet potatoes, as a source of their own food and to improve their quality of life. The most popular of his 44 practical bulletins for farmers contained 105 food recipes using peanuts.” As an individual born into slavery, who became college-educated, and used his knowledge to help others, he was indeed a man of great tenacity and foresight.

Lastly, the story of “the Real McCoy” has always fascinated me, so I went on to find out more about the man who invented it. Elijah J. McCoy was born in 1844 to parents who escaped slavery by taking up residence in Canada. Elijah and his family returned to the United States in 1847, and eventually all the family members became United States citizens. He grew up to become an inventor and engineer. Elijah authored 57 U.S. patents, most dealing with the lubrication of steam engines. The expression “the Real McCoy” has been associated with his oil-drip cup mechanism patented in 1872. It has been said, railroad engineers wanting to avoid inferior copies would ask to be given “the Real McCoy.” 

As impressive as these three Black gentlemen’s accomplishments were, they represent only a fraction of what the Black community, and other minority communities, contributed to the success of America. Their stories remind me of a simple truth. While the color of our skin may not all be the same, God gave each of us a brain, fully capable of creating wondrous, new and innovative ideas.  

The Black community has also displayed its patriotism, even while they were not considered equal at home. Black units fought for the North during the Civil War. Black cavalry soldiers who rode in the western states were called Buffalo soldiers, and more recently the story of the Tuskegee Airmen brought hope and inspiration to those who felt oppressed.

Benjamin Davis Jr. was among the first class of Tuskegee aviation cadets. He “was a graduate of West Point and the son of Brig. Gen. Benjamin Davis, one of two Black officers (other than chaplains) in the entire U.S. military.” In April 1941 Eleanor Roosevelt visited the airfield and was provided an aerial tour by Charles Anderson, the program’s chief flight instructor. Her report to Franklin Delano Roosevelt is said to have tipped the scales, and the squadron of brave Black pilots was sent to join the war in Europe. They found themselves flying P-51 Mustangs and escorting bombers to their targets and back. The Red Tails, as their squadron came to be known, never lost a bomber to enemy fighter action. A very impressive record.

I desire to give all those brave Black soldiers the credit and admiration they deserve. Yet I am also highly appreciative of the Japanese-American soldiers who fought in Europe, the Navajo code talkers in the Pacific, the Latin-American soldiers who fought alongside Jewish-American soldiers, and every man and woman who served and contributed to the Allied victory in World War II.

Quite possibly I feel the way I do because of my heritage. As a third generation Polish-American, my great-grandfather and grandmother immigrated from Galicia, Poland, shortly before and after the start of the 20th century. It was only a few years ago, I was told, that in 1941, all my Polish relatives were marched out of their small town and shot by Nazi soldiers. When I moved my family to Santa Clarita in 1965, I was greeted by a young man who was proud to show me his Ku Klux Klan membership card and informed me being Jewish would not go well for me in our valley. Then he ended his message by telling me, I might be OK, because I did not look Jewish, and I had so many biker friends. 

While I vowed to never lie or conceal who I am, I recognize someone might come up to me and not know my ethnicity, I also understand if I were Black, it would be another story. 

February has become a time to celebrate positive contributions made by the Black community, but if you are not African-American, I hope you take this opportunity to learn more about how the Black community, as well as all the other minority communities, have help make our country become the greatest place to live on planet Earth. 

Alan Ferdman is a Santa Clarita resident and a member of the Canyon Country Advisory Committee board.

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