Our Stories

Reflecting on Black History beyond Black History Month

February 28, 2021

As Black History Month comes to a close, we reflect on the countless Black leaders who have advanced civil rights and justice through their relentless advocacy, inspiring leadership, and trailblazing in historically white spaces – especially within the legal community.

We honor the perseverance of Macon Allan Bolling, who taught himself to read and write before becoming the nation’s first Black attorney in 1844. We celebrate the boldness of Charlotte E. Ray, the first Black woman to become a licensed attorney and the first woman certified to practice law in the District of Columbia. And as we recognize their seminal contributions to the legal community, we also reflect on how, when, and if ever their stories are told.

Too often, the accomplishments of Black historical figures are oversimplified and misrepresented by a dominant narrative that fails to name the actors – individuals, communities, and systems – that have used anti-Blackness to uphold white supremacy and the status quo. Through these consistent misrepresentations, we come to learn a skewed version of our nation’s history that allows wrongs to go unredressed and broken systems to fester. Can justice be served without a full understanding of our nation’s past and its ongoing traumas?

Last June, we issued a statement sharing our support for the Black Lives Matter movement which built on a history of Black activism and movements paving the way for other communities of color to fight against injustice. We stated, “For racial justice to prevail in our country, we must all do our part to dismantle systemic racism,” and we understood that sentiment to mean doing work externally and internally. Thanks to the urging and leadership of many members of our staff, over the past seven months we have looked inward to identify how we can root out systems of oppression that persist within our organizational culture and practices. These efforts built upon an initiative to strengthen our commitment to equity and inclusion that began in 2017.

Looking inward, while uncomfortable at times, enabled our organization to reconfirm our commitment to this process and understand that any meaningful commitment to systemic change requires a long-term and sustained effort. Our equity and inclusion efforts have included an overhaul of our hiring process – with a focus on minimizing subjectivity by standardizing the interview procedure, revisiting our candidate criteria with an equity lens, steps to advertise our open positions more broadly to attract a more diverse pool of candidates, and creation of staff-led affinity groups to support staff identifying with historically excluded populations. With equity at the forefront, we are investing in anti-oppression training for our staff and management team, and are in the process of updating our mission and developing organizational values to more clearly guide our work. Finally, we are committed to increasing the diversity of our organization, from our Board of Directors to our staff. We also recognize that further efforts are required to assure equity and inclusion in both hiring and retention.

The work of unlearning, relearning, and shaping history is tedious and never-ending. Let this be just one of the many ways we all continue to celebrate Black history over our lifetimes, and may we remember that every day is history in the making. Black civic leaders, attorneys, and advocates continue to make history every day. We should recognize, honor, and celebrate their leadership, perseverance, and resilience as an ongoing practice towards building a more equitable and vibrant future for all of us.

Honoring Black History and today’s history-makers beyond Black History Month:

  • Support and promote Black-led organizations and movements fighting to address racial disparities and build more equitable outcomes for all (example here).
  • Support policies that invest in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities and promote equitable access to education, housing, transportation, and fair minimum wage (examples here and here).
  • If your state doesn’t have an anti-racist curriculum on the books for its schools, ask your lawmakers to address it in the 2021 legislative session.

Reflection questions for Black History Month and Beyond:

  • What privilege(s) may you benefit from that make it easier to navigate and trust the legal system? What parts of your identity make you less trustful of the legal system?
  • From whose perspective is history told? How does that influence your understanding of events and their significance as it relates to your own history?
  • How can you continue to center Black history in your education each month? For your children, peers, colleagues, etc?

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