To build an even better future, we must reckon with our past failures but also learn from and build on our past successes. Take as an example the Underground Railroad in Ohio. It was organized by three black barbers and had nearly as many “operators” as all other states combined—more than 1,500 active workers during its estimated peak.
This staggering figure is best approached as a minimum, since hundreds more contributed to the cause of emancipation without ever being positively identified or named by historians. But though they’ve been forgotten, and the history of their cause ignored by today’s activists, these workers aided the cause of liberty far more than today’s loudest protesters could ever dream to.
These men and women risked their lives to join forces with Native Americans, blacks and whites to free an estimated 50,000 slaves. To be sure there were some that didn’t see slavery as a moral and political issue, but the disputes were overshadowed by the massive grassroots movement, full of everyday people organizing themselves to liberate enslaved human beings.
The township of Covert, Mich., is another example of black American history that is often overlooked. It was a multiracial town that never practiced segregation. The black, Native American and white people who lived there went to school together, elected one another to office and did business with each other—all of which was explicitly illegal at the time. The town wasn’t free from conflict—a dispute between white and black neighbors went all the way to the state supreme court in 1896—but nevertheless Covert was a uniquely American moral triumph. Where else in the world would you see such tenacious devotion to the cause of liberty against the pull of the times? Covert was a home to free and prosperous black men and women at a time when their country’s policies were designed to oppress them.
We are called to witness to history in its fullness, not weaponize it against fellow citizens. Black Americans have never been solely defined by victimhood. They have resisted oppression from the start, and their resistance has helped make America more free.
These stories transcend academic or political utility, and they contain within them the seeds of a better future.
People are motivated to change when you show them that victories are possible. These stories tell us that everyday men and women can rally together and win great victories on behalf of themselves and their communities. They remind us what black Americans and all Americans are capable of.
These are the stories we should be teaching. This is the future we ought to build. This month, remember and retell all of black history.
Mr. Schambra is senior fellow emeritus at Hudson Institute and co-editor of The Giving Review. Mr. Woodson is founder and president of the Woodson Center and author of “Red, White, and Black: Rescuing American History From Revisionists and Race Hustlers.”