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Before Black History Month slips away, consider Michigan’s rich diversity of accomplishment

As we start Lent, I’m reminded how hard keeping a Lenten promise can be for 40 days and 40 nights. In college, I tried giving up beer for Lent. That lasted about three weeks. During the first few years I worked in Lansing, I tried giving up swearing, and that didn’t even last through Ash Wednesday). I think the best I’ve done was three years ago, when I decided I’d go to the gym three days a week; I made it about a month.

There’s something similar to the way I’ve gone about appreciating Black History Month. As soon as February 1 hits, I am all about talking up the racial issues of the day, whether it’s Ferguson or the lack of diversity in local police forces. I watch movies like “Selma” and “Do The Right Thing.” I’ll even start to re-read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” But somewhere close to Valentine’s Day is the time that I go back to focusing on the day-to-day journey of a work week, commutes, sports, and binge-watching my favorite TV shows (most of which don’t have anything to do with racial harmony).

I wonder, if I can’t really make it through 28 days of celebrating my heritage and the struggle to keep the dream alive, just like I often fail to make it through the purifying season of Lent, does that make me weak?

Fr. John Fleckenstein, pastor of St. Phillip’s Roman Catholic Church in Battle Creek, is a high school and college friend of mine. A couple weeks back, during his homily, John posed the question:

“How many times do we practice what we preach when it comes to racial equality? … How often have we, in a prayer or (while attending an event, heard) someone (invoking) the names of Rosa Parks, or Martin Luther King, or here in Battle Creek, Sojourner Truth and others? But when that event is over, somehow deep down we are saying to ourselves ‘Got that taken care of. I’ve mentioned the names. Now everyone knows that I’m on the right side.’”

He went on to speak of African Americans less well-known to us. Names like Pierre Toussaint (a slave who gained his freedom and became a noted Catholic philanthropist to the poor of New York City, buried underneath the high altar at St. Patrick’s Cathedral) or Fr. Augustus Tolton (the first ordained African-American Catholic priest). Even some canonized saints like St. Perpetua and Felicity, or St. Augustine, scholars believe came from African descent. I didn’t know that about Augustine, and I went to a school that bears his name.

As John preached his homily, it raised the question in my mind, who are some of Michigan’s notable African Americans who should be celebrated during Black History Month?

They include actor James Earl Jones, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy Jr. and heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. These are the more well-known folks. How many of us have heard of Enoch Harris, Charles Buck, Albert Cleage or Eugene Marshall?

I’ll be honest, I didn’t know much about them until I started writing this article.

Enoch Harris was among the first settlers of Oshtemo Township and was the first African American farmer in Kalamazoo County. Born in November 1784, his family first established themselves on an 80-acre farm near where the village of Schoolcraft is now located. Several years later, they moved north to what is now Oshtemo Township. The property he owned was in the Genesee Prairie and records show he brought apple seed with him and raised an orchard on the land. Enoch died in 1870 and is buried in the Genesee Prairie Cemetery alongside his wife Deborah who died 11 years later.

Charles Buck came to Kalamazoo in 1858, the beneficiary of one of the white churches in the area that gave him clothes and food. He started saving money and buying property and became a successful farmer and real-estate broker. By 1915, he owned seven tenement houses and a store, along with three farms and other properties in Schoolcraft and Three Rivers.

Albert Cleage earned his medical degree from the Indiana School of Medicine in 1910. He came to Kalamazoo in 1912 and served as the city’s first African American doctor. Eugene Marshall graduated from the University of Michigan with his law degree. He became a noted orator and lived and practiced law in Kalamazoo on Ransom Street. The Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society is an invaluable source of information.

We’re in the last week of Black History Month now. I urge you to take the time this week to find out and celebrate the little known African-American pioneers from our state. Learn about University of Michigan computer-science PhD Kyla McMullen. When the weather breaks, drive up to Lake County and visit Idlewild. Make this last week of February your strongest push to embrace the greatest strength Michigan has – people of all races, creeds, colors and backgrounds.

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