Heritage months spotlight forgotten heroes
CHICAGO -- Let's face it: If it weren't for celebratory months like Women's History (March), Asian-Pacific American Heritage (May) and Hispanic Heritage (September/October), America's school children would rarely hear about little-known people who changed the nature of life in the United States.
Today's textbooks are overburdened with covering the whole of American history through a handful of lionized greats in a few short chapters.
Too bad these heritage months are often treated with hard-core tone deafness.
I've been teaching in public schools since 2004 and I've seen some epic fails: Hispanic Heritage Months mostly consisting of tacos on the lunch menu, Asian "celebrations" with only a reference to Chinese New Year, never-addressed Women's History and, of course, one-note Black History Months.
Though he is more than deserving of the singular honor, there is black history well beyond Martin Luther King Jr. The best heritage celebrations go deep into the annals to highlight forgotten heroes who have something to say about how life plays out today.
For instance, my school recently got a mini-lecture on the legendary career of Isaac Murphy, an African-American who was the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times. He first won in 1884 -- the same year he triumphed in the inaugural (and eventually prestigious) American Derby race in Chicago.
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Murphy's mother did laundry for the owner of a horse stable near their home in Lexington, Kentucky, and "Ike," who was born into slavery, soon learned to ride.
The list of Murphy's racing accomplishments is lengthy, but his back-to-back Kentucky Derby wins in 1890 and 1891 stand out. His record for three wins at Churchill Downs went unbroken for 57 years.
This was exciting for me to learn.
Someone recently asked me in all earnestness why we "need" Black History Month, and I can think of no better example than that of Ike Murphy.