February was designated as Black History Month by President Gerald Ford in 1976 in the United States. According to the 38th President, this was to be an attempt to “seize the opportunity to honor the too often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history”.
In the shadow of America’s first black president, Barack Obama, whose term ended earlier this year, the Embassy of the United States in Addis Ababa marked the occasion by highlighting the heroes of past years. The event held at the American Center, inside the National Archives and Library Agency (NALA), hosted a lively conversation with Robin Angela Smith, an African-American career public servant with the United States Army Africa, on Wednesday, February 15th.
With a career that dates back to the era of President Ronald Reagan, Smith reflected on the rich history of African Americans and her own families’ pursuit of a fair and equal American society. She opened her 30-minute maiden speech by paying tribute to the history of black Americans and spoke highly of her host country, Ethiopia’s place in the history of the African diaspora. “We are descendants of great people”, she said. “Ethiopia has always stood as a symbol of African achievement”.
She reflected on a family member from a century ago, the noted Republican politician and civil rights activist, Robert Smalls, an illiterate South Carolina native, whose heroic effort during the American Civil War is a celebrated American milestone. The self-taught captain, at the age of 23, commanded a ship from confederate controlled water to safety and helped save American lives. That inspired President Abraham Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Act to end slavery and allow the participation of black-Americans to become members of the Army in the United States.
She also highlighted Bruce Boynton, whose successful challenge of a rule of law (Boynton v. Virginia), prevented racial segregation in public arenas to the Supreme Court, gave way to a slew of progressive laws and ultimately became the foundation of the civil rights movement. As well, she spoke of Amelia Boynton Robinson, who was a visible actor during the Selma to Montgomery marches, who died, at the age of 104, two years ago.
At the end of a career, fighting for justice and equality for Americans and helped transition the American society to a more perfect union, to those in the trenches fighting for equality, justice and might want to follow in her footsteps, Amelia offered lasting words of wisdom. “Get off of my shoulders. The foundation has been laid, now it’s for you to build on it”, she warned. “Now, it’s your time. Get to work”.
At the end of her presentation, Smith repeated the words of Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps self-expiratory to the many civil and human rights shortcomings of the current United States. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”.
After the presentation, there was a back-to-back Q & A on the ‘Victory of the battle of Adwa’, racism, the North American Black Lives Matter movement and black feminism.