Black History is America’s History

By Claudia Wheatley

“How come we never see you guys until February?” asked the director of African American Studies at Cornell. We glanced at each other: Being young, white reporters, we still needed people to tell us what constituted “news” and which stories needed telling. We mumbled something and moved on.

Looking back decades later, I think I’d have a different answer today. Hacky as some “months” truly are – Pet Dental Health Month, anyone? – others help break through the clutter of our over-sharing culture to focus attention on matters of real importance. Now that the Republican Party is hellbent on erasing Black history, we all need a 28-day crash course more than ever.

Today, February 1, is the birthday of both Frederick Douglass and Langston Hughes. Rosa Parks was born February 4; Audre Lorde, February 18; Sidney Poitier, February 20; John Lewis and Nina Simone, February 21; W.E.B. Du Bois, February 23. Poets, writers, singers, actors, makers of good trouble, they comprise an enormous cohort of talent, energy and achievement packed into one month. I don’t know if this birthday cluster is the reason February was chosen as Black History Month, but it certainly gives us plenty to celebrate.

It’s instructive to take a close look at the history of the local Black community. How much Black history could there be in a small county in upstate New York, where just 60 years ago 98 percent of the population was white? Quite a bit, it turns out.

Built in 1833 in the city’s South Side, St. James AME Zion Church is the oldest church in Ithaca and one of the oldest AME Zion churches in the country; in addition to serving its Black congregation, it was a station in the underground railroad to Canada, with early pastors such as Thomas James and Jermaine Lougen as station masters. In 1852, St. James hosted a speech by Frederick Douglass; Harriet Tubman, who lived in nearby Auburn, NY, visited often.

Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest academic fraternity for Black students, was founded in 1906 at Cornell University (Cornell’s first president, Andrew Dickson White, famously wrote that if a qualified Black student applied he would accept him, even if the entire white student body quit. A Black student did enroll in 1870; he had been a slave just six years earlier).

Martin Luther King, Jr. arrives at the Ithaca airport
for his 1961 speech at Cornell.

Alex Haley, author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the novel-turned-hit-TV-series Roots, was born in downtown Ithaca while his father and mother studied at Cornell and the school that became Ithaca College, respectively. Their home was on Cascadilla St., which is why the nearby community pool is named for him.

Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke before overflow crowds at Cornell in 1960 and 1961. His father, Martin Luther King, Sr., spoke at Cornell in 1979.

Cornell counts Henry Louis Gates, Jr. among its distinguished faculty and Toni Morrison among its literary stars.

If you’d like to know more, you’re in luck: Ithaca native Dr. Nia Nunn will give an online talk about local Black history Friday, February 17 at noon. She will also perform a special reading from her book, Deep Breath. Click here to register (and, if you like, submit a question for Dr. Nunn to address).

Until then, take a moment to Google the people behind those February birthdays—and share what you learn with someone who needs to know. No one’s written a law yet that can stop you.

Claudia Wheatley is Communications Director for TCDC. Send her items for the monthly newsletter at

Posted in Tompkins County.