The month of February is traditionally celebrated as Black History Month in the United States, when the country recognizes Black achievements. It’s often invoked in schools and workplaces this month, but how many Americans are familiar with its origins?
In the early 1920s, African-American historian Carter G. Woodson encouraged study of Black history and established a week of observances in February 1926. Why February? It happens to be the birthday month of President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, both of whom played an important role in Emancipation in the 19th century. By the 1960s, the week became an entire month of celebration and recognition. And since the 1970s, every American president has issued official proclamations for the month.
“This February, during Black History Month, I call on the American people to honor the history and achievements of Black Americans and to reflect on the centuries of struggle that have brought us to this time of reckoning, redemption and hope,” said President Joe Biden in an official statement released on Feb. 1.
While “Black History Month” is a common phrase and the achievements of certain prominent figures — like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Booker T. Washington — are well known, there are myriads of others who deserve our attention.
“What about Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan?” says Stephanie Turner-Scott, Director of Corporate Marketing and a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Council at ASI. “They were the African-American women mathematicians who worked at NASA, and many of us only learned of them from the 2016 movie Hidden Figures. In addition, do the names Sojourner Truth or Madam C.J. Walker mean anything to anyone?”
While civil rights activists Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, sports figures LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, and music artists Michael Jackson, Prince and Stevie Wonder have many achievements to be celebrated, the list should be expanded, says Turner-Scott.
“When I was in school, we were given a list of names and we had to choose one to write about during Black History Month,” she says. “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver were at the top of the short list. Everyone wanted to write about them because there were so many books and references about them, but precious little about any others. There have been many missed opportunities [to recognize Black achievements] in past years. Many trailblazers haven’t received acknowledgment or credit for their contributions and inventions.”
Virginia Lucas, UX Interaction Designer and a member of Diversity and Inclusion Council at ASI, says she’d like to see more attention paid to important figures like Ruby Bridges, a 1950s civil rights activist and the first African-American student to desegregate an all-white school in the South. Richard Humphreys founded Cheyney University of Pennsylvania in 1837, the nation’s first historically black college and university (HBCU).
There are also many figures local to ASI, like Ed Hipp, owner of Ed Hipp Foods in Philadelphia, and Emma Carolyn Chappell, founder and CEO of the United Bank of Philadelphia and the first African-American woman to form a commercial bank in the U.S., says Lucas. Meanwhile, Dorothy Pitman Hughes from Georgia is a feminist child welfare advocate who established the first multi-racial daycare center, and Debbie Allen from Texas is a dancer, choreographer, film producer, singer-songwriter and actress who employs African-Americans in the arts.
“Black history is an entity of its own, but it’s also the history of this country and the world. We must find ways to integrate it into all historical discussions.”
Virginia Lucas, ASI
“What’s often missed is recognition of today’s pioneers, those Black men and women who are currently achieving great things in entrepreneurship, product creation, science and the arts,” says Lucas, who adds that she’d also like to see more emphasis on Black history in all discussion of past events.
“Black history is an entity of its own, but it’s also the history of this country and the world,” she says. “We must find ways to integrate it into all historical discussions.”
The importance of deepening our collective knowledge about Black contributions to our national history came to the fore in 2020 with its renewed attention on racial injustice. Turner-Scott reflects on the importance of Juneteenth, celebrated each June 19 to commemorate Emancipation.
“How many people were aware of Juneteenth before it was mentioned in the political arena last year?” she asks. “How many people are going to look it up after they read this? What are states and organizations doing, if anything, to recognize this day?” Turner-Scott points out that the State of New Jersey has declared Juneteenth a state and public holiday, and she’d like to see that expand across the country.
“I hope there’s a heightened thirst for knowledge of Black History,” says Turner-Scott. “It’s important to me that we take a moment and reflect on what we know and, more importantly, what we don’t know. I’m still learning, and the things I share with the next generation will be events from the past 10 years as well as the past 100.”
Brands too are recognizing Black contributions with branded items — like this Peloton capsule collection and special edition sneakers from New Balance — and the promo industry itself is making strides. ASI offers designation filters* in ESP, including owners of color, veterans, “Small and Disadvantaged,” LGBTQ and more, in order to continue facilitating supplier diversity efforts.
“Back in 2012, I challenged the audience at the ASI Power Summit to hire one minority sometime in the next year,” wrote Tim Andrews, president and CEO of ASI, in a blog post. “If every top distributor heeded my call … in five years we’d have 25,000 experienced representatives courting new business.”
An industry-wide commitment to diversity helps to tear down long-standing barriers to advancement and also welcomes more diverse clients into the space. “Will hiring more minorities and women automatically boost your bottom line? Of course not,” wrote Andrews. “But as study after study tells us, people tend to trust and buy from people who look like them, culturally and ethnically. So it’s good economic sense for every company in this industry to take an aggressive stance on shaking things up.”
“Here at ASI, we listen and grow all year long. We do not shirk from doing the hard work and will continue to include, and hear, as many different voices as possible.”Tim Andrews, President and CEO, ASI
Hopefully, says Turner-Scott, this awareness will lead to more Diversity and Inclusion efforts in corporate America. “I’ve attended a few [promo] industry events in recent years where I was literally the only person of color in a room of a couple hundred people or more,” she says. “Other times, the men outnumbered the women 2:1. So I want to see a shift and increase in representation, and more equality and respect.”
It starts at the ground level with internal company culture, which is why Turner-Scott joined the ASI Diversity and Inclusion Council to generate awareness of diversity and inclusion at the company and in the promo industry.
“I’ve attended a few industry events in recent years where I was literally the only person of color in a room of a couple hundred people or more. I want to see a shift and increase in representation, and more equality and respect.”
Stephanie Turner-Scott, ASI
“We started opening the door through training efforts and discussions that allowed employees to express themselves, share and ask questions, even when it’s uncomfortable,” she says. “So now we have to continue that momentum to bring about change. We have to be the champions and leaders to motivate others to engage and be active in all efforts if we want to have any chance of moving the needle in a positive direction.” Hopefully more companies and organizations will welcome the “uncomfortable” discussions that need to happen, she says, especially in light of recent events.
“Here at ASI, we listen and grow all year long,” wrote Andrews in a welcome message for the Diversity and Inclusion Council blog. “We do not shirk from doing the hard work and will continue to include, and hear, as many different voices as possible.”
This ongoing effort took on new significance in 2020 during weeks of protests and unrest. Thankfully, many leaders from all walks of life stood up in a renewed commitment to awareness of injustice, but more work still needs to be done.
“Just talking openly has been as a major step, and kudos to the leaders who recognized the importance of addressing tough issues at a time when our entire country was hurting,” says Turner-Scott. “In Diversity and Inclusion Council, we’ve discussed ways to attract and promote diverse talent across all levels within the organization, recruiting from varying demographic areas and doing more community outreach.”
Diversity and Inclusion Council plays a critical role in educating and advocating for more diversity in the workplace, says Lucas, who wants systemic injustice replaced with “systemic fairness” and looks forward to seeing more people of color in leadership positions in corporate America.
“We acknowledge that there’s a need for change and that we’re willing to create and implement policies and procedures to dismantle systemic barriers,” she says. “While some changes have been made, there still needs to be a path to leadership for people of color and underserved groups.”
*Please note that minority designations are self-reported by suppliers. For a full list of suppliers and their designations, email [email protected].