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The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) held its 91st annual Black History Luncheon Saturday, Feb. 25, with hundreds of guests packed the ballroom of the Washington Renaissance Hotel for the highly-anticipated tradition.
The luncheon theme this year, “The Crisis in Black Education,” stemmed from the historic and contemporary issue of the role of education in African-American history.
“Some of us remember what segregated schools were like in the ’40s and ’50s,” said ASALH President Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. “Now, in the 21st century, we find ourselves worried about the effect federal policies will have on our children.”
The organization said poorly performing schools serve as a pipeline to prison, and discussion of revitalizing public education in underserved communities is especially relevant in today’s political climate with the appointment of private- and charter-school advocate Betsy DeVos as secretary of education.
“It is no overstatement to say that [DeVos’ appointment] by President Trump has sparked tremendous concern regarding the fate of public schools for minorities and the poor,” Higginbotham said. “ASALH shares this concern and emphasizes that the problem of education inequality has a long history in America.”
ASAHL leaders said this year’s theme sought to highlight the triumphs of African-Americans over policies that impeded education, such as laws prohibiting slaves from learning to read and segregated schools, as well as all attention to the existing lack of resources in low-income and minority-majority public schools.
“Black History Month is not just about regurgitating contributions,” said keynote speaker and South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn. “Black History Month is about a time of reflection, introspection and trying to make some determination as to what to do going forward. That’s why I am pleased with your selecting [this theme].”
Established in 1915 by the “Father of Black History Month,” Carter G. Woodson, ASALH was the vehicle for promoting Negro History Week in 1926, which eventually grew into the monthlong celebration known today. Its mission is to “promote, research, preserve, interpret and disseminate information about black life, history and culture to the global community.”
“Think about the children coming from underserved communities and underfunded high schools,” Clyburn said. “This is not about skin color or ethnicity because if you were talking about these communities in Alaska or South Dakota, they would be Native American. If you talk about the students in Arizona or New Mexico, they would be Latino. If you talk about these kinds of communities in West Virginia or Kentucky, they would be white.
“What we are talking about is educating our kids irrespective of their backgrounds,” Clyburn said.
The Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and its foundation also presented ASALH with a total of $20,000.
“We are going to support those programs that support our community and continue to educate them,” said Omega Psi Phi National President Antonia Knox. “Because of [ASALH], we understand who we are.”
ASALH presented its Living Legacy Award to Bryan Stevenson for his with work with Equal Justice Initiative, which he founded in Montgomery, to fight class- and race-driven discrimination in the justice system. Dorothy Bailey, ASALH executive council member and Prince George’s County branch president, received the Executive Council Award for Special Recognition for her service to residents as an elected official in Maryland.
“It’s more important than ever for the community to be involved in our history and what we do, and ASALH leads the charge,” said ASALH Executive Director Sylvia Cyrus.