Shirlita Dunbar didn’t celebrate Black History Month in high school, but she knows the importance of learning about the unfamiliar leaders who share her heritage.
“It’s not just about Martin Luther King,” the African American studies sophomore said. “It is also the unknown names, the people you see in pictures, but might not know their names.”
Paying attention to the lesser-known activists in black history was a theme throughout the Black History Month kick-off events at the University on Friday.
At “Celebrating Black History in Minnesota,” a lecture at Andersen Library on Friday, speakers narrated the stories of local heroes like Mary Kyle and John Quincy Adams – not the former U.S. president.
Kyle and Adams, although active in different time periods, utilized the media to promote support and advocacy for black-owned businesses and political endeavors.
Kyle, who attended the University in the 1920s and went on to manage two black-owned newspapers, kept a diary in which she wrote about the world as it changed around her. She observed that “young black citizens Ö didn’t even know where they came from, nor the marvelous heritage.”
She said the events of black history were as “thrilling as a James Bond novel.”
Karla Davis, curator of the Givens Collection of African-American Literature, lectured on Kyle and stressed the importance of learning local black history.
“You get more of a resonance when you learn about someone who walked on the streets you walked on and might have lived in a building you lived in,” she said. “You realize how history touches all of us.”
Later in the day, the Black Student Union hosted a commencement and reception featuring re-enactments of speeches by Malcolm X and Booker T. Washington and a performance by the DeLaSoulja Steppers of DeLaSalle High School.
BSU President Wilfried Zehourou said since black history isn’t emphasized in basic history classes, it’s important to seek out knowledge of the heritage.
“You don’t have to learn history in a class,” he said, “you can learn it from someone’s personal experience.”
BSU’s theme for this year’s Black History Month is “Transcending the Social Construct.”
Marta Merzi, a statistics senior, came out to support BSU’s effort. She said the point of having history documented is to learn from the past.
“It enables people to assess where we’re at today compared to where we were in the past,” she said.
Rose Brewer, a professor in the African and African American studies department, said it’s beneficial for everyone in society to learn about black history, not just those of African descent.
“It’s important for people to realize the centrality of African American history and how it shaped and defined American history,” she said.
Looking to provide this opportunity for others on campus and the community, Dunbar took on the position of Black History Month chairwoman for BSU.
She said knowledge can change the future.
“When you know your heritage and where you came from you can better understand the world around you,” Dunbar said.