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Tyrone Ledford, a professor at Cerro Coso College, is in the midst of the Ridgecrest Community Garden, which he founded. / Laura Austin Photo

Black History Month enlightens people in the rich history of Black people

By LAURA QUEZADA News Review Staff Writer

February is Black History Month. It began as a week in 1926. In 1976, as part of the nation’s bicentennial, President Gerald Ford extended the recognition to a month.

It had its beginnings in 1915 in Chicago when the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) was formed under the leadership of Carter G. Woodson to promote the scientific study of Black life and history. February was chosen for the initial Black History Week because it “encompasses the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass – both men being great American symbols of freedom.” (asalh.org)

Scholars and citizens alike applaud and question the significance of Black History Month. Arguments include why we concentrate on achievements and leave out the inequities. Black History is American History, so it should be integrated into all studies of American history. However, the month offers an opportunity to take a look away from the focus on the Black community as one of poverty, drugs, incarceration, lack of education, and other negativities portrayed in mainstream media.

Tyrone Ledford, Professor of Child Development specializing in Trauma-Informed Care at Cerro Coso, Founder of Ridgecrest Community Garden and its sponsor, Holistic Divine Innovations, shares his personal insights into Black History Month. We spoke with Ledford on the grounds of the Ridgecrest Community Garden.

“Black History Month is important because it enlightens people in the rich history of Black people in America,” he says. “The contributions that Black people made to society are not always recognized. I think about the role Black people played in the civil rights movement and in education and stuff like that. So I think it brings light to a lot of that information, where we can have a month where we are just solely focused on teaching communities and teaching children about our accomplishments. I think that in itself is extremely important.

“Even for myself as an educator, a lot of people don’t realize it’s a huge breakthrough. There are less than 1.5% of Black male child development professors in the United States. So, there are fewer than 500 of us who are full-time professors in the field of child development.

“I find shedding light on the demographics out here is extremely important in highlighting Black history. Also,  we’re sitting here on a farm, and today, Black farmers make up less than 2% of farmers in the United States. So even looking at Ridgecrest, we have two Black professors at Cerro Coso (he and Nakysha Cumming), and then we also have a Black farm in Ridgecrest as well. So there’s a huge history of farming/agriculture, and that pertains to Black people that a lot of people don’t know about, which is bills that were passed that stripped Black people of their land. Before, we’d made up around 16% of agriculture in the United States, and then, you know, after bills were passed and people were stripped of their land and couldn’t transfer land to their children.”

From fairfarmsnow.org: “Between 1910 and 1997, African Americans lost about 90% of their farmland. One of the main causes of this property loss is heirs’ property, where descendants of land owners inherit land from their families but have no will or legal documentation that proves their land ownership. The issue of heirs’ property loss still persists today. In the early 1900s, white supremacist backlash spread across the United States. The USDA counted close to a million Black farmers across the United States – or about 14% of all farmers at the time. Many Black men during this time period were lynched because white landowners wanted their land. Violent mobs often beat and threatened to murder Black farmers if they didn’t abandon their homes.”

If you cannot pass down your property to the next generations, you cannot build wealth.

Ledford says of the Black community, “We’re still fighting for equality, which we get to a point now where we realize that equality is not really what we need. We need equity.  Now, we’re all given equal opportunity. But if we are not standing in a place where we have ownership and when we have wealth, then we don’t have the same pathways to get to these opportunities and to levels of success as our counterparts. I view equity as fairness and ownership. So we are trying to get to a point where we are receiving more equity so that we can own more land and we can own more resources, which is one of the most important things.”

Cerro Coso offers a learning community called Umoja, which is Swahili for unity. It is open to all students and is geared toward providing opportunities for Black students. They offer events where they take students on tours of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.  “We’ve done events where we do our African ancestry to trace where our bloodline comes from,” says Ledford. “We did our maternal side, and then we’re going to do our paternal side. We were able to trace exactly what tribe we come from, which is very powerful because we look at the history of Black people in America and we are not able to trace where we actually come from. Much of our culture has been stripped from us. So our only culture is whatever culture we have out here in America.”

Umoja is planning a trip to Africa. “In Africa, they don’t consider Black people in America Africans. We have really no connection to our culture out there. We are going to take our students to Africa and we are going to try to visit some of the places that we come from based on our African ancestry.

“I looked at my last name, and I was able to trace it back to a slaveholder, of course. I just kept digging and kept digging and, boom, there’s a tombstone of this person, who was a slaveowner. So that is the history of my last name. And for many Black people here, our last names come from slaveholder families. Even our last names have been stripped from us. It’s extremely important that we really learn about our roots and our history beyond slavery because, in America, that’s where a lot of our history starts. It starts with slavery, but then we don’t really learn about Black people who are indigenous to California. We don’t learn about that history as well as the history of who we were before slavery occurred. So it gets very; it gets very deep.”

According to Ledford, most historical films about famous Black leaders contain a lot of inaccuracies. However, there is one documentary he believes everyone would benefit from watching. “The documentary is called, Tulsa the Fire and the Forgotten. The history of Tulsa is there was a very rich and wealthy Black community in Tulsa; it was called the Black Wall Street. And this community was independent. This rich and wealthy Black community was thriving, the schools were thriving, and the Black businesses were thriving.

“A white mob came and burned down the whole city. We don’t read about that in any of our history books. Even if you look into like American history, you will not see any of that anywhere. There’s even some real live footage of it happening. And that is a part of our history that I think everyone should know of.”

Racism persists in America. It isn’t obvious with burning crosses and folks in white robes terrorizing. It has gone underground and has become ingrained in systems that are invisible to those unaffected by it. Ledford says, “I think all history is extremely important. The good, the bad, and the ugly, to really understand where we are today. Like police brutality, those things are very real too you know, racism is like not it’s not one of those things where it’s a tumor where you can see it and you can measure it and you can identify it. It shows up in many different forms, and a lot of the time, you can’t just point it out. You have to have extensive experience with racism to be able to identify it. Not just Black  people, but Latinos and  minorities know what racism looks like and what it feels like because we experienced it in a lot of different places.”

Police brutality gets highlighted in the news. Ledford says discrimination is embedded. Fortunately, he hasn’t been brutalized, but he has been stopped by the police walking with his son from the Ridgecrest Community Garden to China Lake Boulevard. “It doesn’t matter how much money I make; it doesn’t matter if I own this place, it doesn’t matter if I’m a professor, no one sees that; they only see an African American male walking through a neighborhood where people sell drugs or people are fighting, or more crime happens. They discriminate. It’s embedded. That’s what they’re taught to do. So, the system was built like that. And even though there are good  officers in the system, they’re still the system.”

Black History Month is a complex and deep subject. Ledford believes it would best be addressed in community forums where there can be open discussions. “Maybe we should do something like that,” he says. “But not this year.”