I love African American History Month and asking members of our church along with colleagues and friends what people inspired them.
Joseph reminded me of George Washington Carver, who is always associated with the many uses of peanuts. But Carver wrote about peanuts – as well as sweet potatoes and tomatoes – because he sought to save the agriculture of the South. The constant farming of cotton was depleting the soil of nutrients so that the crops were worsening over time. By rotating the farming of cotton with peanuts and sweet potatoes and tomatoes, nutrients could be restored in the soil. These other crops also provided multiple benefits to the farmers as well as those to whom they sold the harvest.
Carver did this in a time when educational opportunities were limited for African Americans in this country. The first college that accepted him refused him admittance when they found out that he was black. But he did not let that stop him as he sought admittance elsewhere, becoming the first black student at Iowa State University in 1891. His life had been inspired by an elementary school teacher named Mariah Watkins who always told him, “You must learn all you can, then go back out into the world and give learning back to the people.”
George Washington Carver lived his life following those words, for he not only became one of the most prominent scientists of his day, he also used that knowledge to better the lives of the farmers around him. As he would later say to his critics, “When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.”
After the writer of Hebrews recounts the faith of so many figures from the past, he concludes with the reason why their examples is so important: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
We tell these stories so that they may inspire and encourage our own journeys of faith.
So during African American History Month as we consider the figures that inspire us, we do so in order that we may lead lives of faith and inspire others.
Doris is a retired educator in our congregation. She told me that whenever she taught a class about African American History Month, she would have the class turn around and look at one another as she would remind them, “You are part of African American history.”
She spoke to me about her parents, who raised 11 children. Though her father worked in a chalk mine down by Macon, he and her mother made certain that every one of those children received an education and went to college.
When I talked to her son Nelson, he spoke of his mother as his inspiration. He talked about how it is the unsung heroes, the day-to-day lives, the ones who work 9 to 5, who are the ones that make history happen.
So whether your inspiration is well known in history or perhaps should be better known in history, whether your inspiration is famous or personal, we remember these lives during this month so that we might remember that we are a part of that history.
These lives that fought for justice and equality give us the strength and courage to stand upon their example and continue to work for, struggle for, and seek to achieve that dream when all will be treated with their God-given dignity and when all will live in peace.
So let us live into the words of the hymn penned by James Weldon Johnson: “Lift every voice and sing/ Till earth and heaven ring/ Ring with the harmonies of victory./ … Facing the rising sun of our new day begun/ Let us march on till victory is won.”