Black History Month: Focus on Family

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Black History month.  It is incredulous that black history isn’t woven into American History causing us to need a separate month.  African Americans were instrumental in building this country.  The cotton industry put the U.S. on the global map.  It was built on the ingenuity, forced labor and millions of lives of African Americans.  That period set the permanent stage for race relation in the U.S.: civil rights, economic inequality, our prison system, etc..  But it isn’t taught that way. 

On the other hand, thank goodness there is a period of focus where Black history is taught and celebrated.  Otherwise we wouldn’t even have the small bit of history understood that is taught and highlighted.  When people think of black history, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglas, Harriett Tubman, Mary Bethune McCloud and handfuls of others are prominently featured over and over again.

This month I’m going to write about people that you probably haven’t heard of.  But who have contributed to our history and are contributing.  History is just a collection of the individual actions that we each take every day.  We rarely know at the time its significance.  Only the future will determine.  So I will be highlighting people who have in the past or who are currently taking actions that will impact our future.

I’m going to start with a focus on family.  Black History month is a great reason to look back into our own family archives and learn how our ancestors made an impact.  I’ll follow this with a focus on African Americans in tech, my passion.  Then I’ll highlight some organizations that are making a difference and finish up with showcasing some little known African American entrepreneurs that you should know.

So let’s start with family.  William D. Nixon, or WD as he was called, was my great grandfather.  He died just a couple of months before I was born.  His father was born a slave who ultimately gained his freedom and then bought his mother out of slavery.  We have the Manumission, the bill of sale document for a slave, for her in our family archives.

                              William D. Nixon 

                             William D. Nixon 

WD was strong willed and a fierce proponent of exercising your rights to both protect them and raise awareness of injustice.  He was a prolific letter writer to the Newspaper’s editorial boards, averaging one or two a week.  He had many published.  He dragged my mother and her sisters to lunch counter sit ins, tolerating the abuse and indignities to make the bigger point.  In many ways he was a renaissance man.  He was an art teacher and a self-taught architect.  He designed stage sets, buildings, and ultimately the family home.  He had one daughter and was determined that she would be a doctor, a tall order for a man just one generation from slavery.  And sure enough, Ethel, his daughter became a doctor and ultimately a psychiatrist on the staff of John’s Hopkins, becoming the first black women to achieve a number of steps along that path.  He supported her all through her life, even moving in with Ethel’s family to help with the kids so she could focus on her career.

I’m confident you have never heard of WD Nixon, but he left many fingerprints behind.  The home he designed is featured in the collection of the Capital Houses. It is the only one designed and built by an African American.  He founded the Oldest Inhabitants, the oldest civic organization in Washington, D.C., focused on representing long-term citizens of the city.  And when Frederick Douglas’s son incorporated the land that his father acquired on the Chesapeake Bay, called Highland Beach, creating the first land African American’s could buy on the water, WD Nixon bought a small parcel and built a cottage.

I encourage you to take time this month and learn about one of your ancestors.

The above images are from the Capital Houses Historic Residences of Washington, D.C., and Its Environs 1735 – 1965; James M. Goode; Photography by Bruce M. White. The Mounsey House was built in 1949-50 and designed by William D. Nixon in the Palisades neighborhood. Status is a private residence.

Shellye ArchambeauComment