One Month At A Time

[Editor’s note: LEO founder and former editor John Yarmuth wrote this column Feb. 12, 1997.]

I learned something extraordinary last week. I learned that the golf tee, that a little piece of wood indispensable to the sport, was invented in 1899 by G. W. Grant, a black man.

Considering that I play as many as 100 rounds of golf a year, or about 1,800 holes, that means I use golf tees more frequently than I do knives and forks, pens and pencils, my television or my toothbrush.

And they were invented by a black man, which I find extraordinary only because I have played golf all my life and never knew it. Of course, I also didn’t know that while Thomas Edison gets all the credit for inventing the electric light bulb, the carbon filament for the incandescent lamp was invented by another black man, Lewis Latimer.

I don’t presume that I should have been taught anything about golf tees when I was in school. But I think someone should have clued me in that a man with dark skin is at least partially responsible for helping me see at night.

I realize that up till now, like many white Americans, I always regarded Black History Month simply as a politically correct, inoffensive way for African-Americans to celebrate their history. After all, there is only one holiday assigned to a black American: the great Martin Luther King Jr. But even though I always empathized with Black History Month, I’m ashamed to admit that I never regarded it as an opportunity to learn more about our history.

My early education, as far as I can remember, was typical in its colorlessness. Black people were mentioned only as victims of lynchings, or as oppressed slaves. Of course, there were no black founding fathers, presidents, generals, aviators, explorers, inventors or astronauts (or so we believed). We discussed black people as political or economic entities, but never as individuals, as heroes, as productive citizens, as role models.

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Out of curiosity, I picked up my college U.S. history book, written by esteemed scholars such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Bruce Catton, and C. Vann Woodward in 1963, and used for years at America’s top universities. I began to flip through the index and strangely could not find names like Crispus Attucks, Marian Anderson or even Frederick Douglass. Nowhere is there a mention of Hiram Revels, the first black U.S. senator, elected in Mississippi during Reconstruction. Same for his colleague Blanche K. Bruce, the second black senator. In fact, there is nothing about Jesse Owens or Jackie Robinson or any of the many figures whose positions in America’s social and cultural history are monumental.

There is no mention of Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr., who captained the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II and won the Distinguished Flying Cross. My history book somehow avoids crediting James A. Jones of Jackson, Tennessee, whose patented “Jones Spring” device made it possible to raise and lower the top of an automobile. It totally ignores George Washington Carver and the 300 peanut products he developed.

Of the several hundred Americans pictured in this textbook’s 850 pages, only Booker T. Washington is black. On the other hand, the volume includes two photos of unidentified blacks, one a group of Virginia cotton-pickers, the other a handsome family over the caption “Southern freedmen: They needed a guardian.”

Suddenly, I feel cheated, ashamed and stupid. But I’m not alone. Too many Americans, black and white, were deprived of much of this history, largely because white America wouldn’t, or couldn’t, give credit where credit was due. History book writers, when they dealt with blacks at all, discussed them as an issue for the dominant white society to handle rather than as active participants and contributors to the society. Whether this sin of omission was committed out of ignorance or, as African-American scholar Judge Raymond Pace Alexander of Philadelphia contends, because of “…the deference of textbook publishers to the special sensitivities of the southern market,” the ramification for all of us is a crying need to retrieve important episodes from America’s history.

So if you’re one of those people who wonders why we need Black History Month, ask yourself if you knew who invented the golf tee or the light bulb filament or the ragtop. Then ask yourself whether one month is enough. •

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth has represented Kentucky’s 3rd Congressional District since 2007 and is the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee.

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