Black History Month dates back to 1926, when the Assosiation for the Study of Negro Life and History, known today as Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), began a week to recognize the accomplishments of black Americans and Africans through community events and celebrations. Gerald Ford became the first president to recognize Black History Month in 1976, and it has since expanded to be observed nationwide but with the same focus on community and communication.
Black History Month has an annual theme, with 2020’s being “African Americans and the Vote”. This year will mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment, which gave women and African American men the constitutional right to vote, respectively.
Dr. Benjamin C. White serves on Naperville’s City Council. Elected in 2017, White is the first African American councilman. White is a retired army officer and is a former member of the District 204 Board of Education. While on the board, White says he sought to spread awareness on Black History Month through learning and encouraging both students and teachers to do the same.
“Sometimes some of the teachers should know how to teach certain things but they may not necessarily know exactly how to teach that,” said White. “So there’s some unforeseen challenges that I think we picked up on as well. If you’re a student of color and you’re the only one in the classroom, it may not be comfortable to talk about some of those things. [Try] to encourage people to talk about it because it’s not just black history, it’s American history.”
White started Naperville Neighbors United, a diverse committee of Naperville residents who focus on communicating about how to make the community inclusive. White says discussions often revolve around sensitive topics like race, religion, ethnicity, and gender, and share a common goal of promoting understanding.
“We have a lot of courageous conversations,” White says. “What we’re going to find out is that most of us have a lot more in common than we are different. As a result, we end up building trust amongst our community members. When it comes to dealing with public safety officials and our government, that trust factor goes a long way when we have certain challenges that pop up in our community.”
World Population Review published a data collection from the US Census that listed only 5.24% of Naperville’s 2020 population is black or African American. After multiple racist incidents that took place over in 2019 the City Council revised Naperville’s mission statement to include “creating an inclusive community that values diversity. In light of this, on Feb 18, the City Council will designate February as Black History Month in Naperville.
“People need to understand that what happens in our community [is] a reflection of things that happen within all communities,” White says. “If you look at the Buffalo Wild Wings incident, almost everyone involved wasn’t from Naperville. It happened in Naperville, but the thing is what are we going to do about it? My advice to the current community and to the students is that when you see it you have to call it out. Don’t accept it because as soon as you don’t say anything, you just said it’s okay for someone to do whatever they just did.”
White encourages students to communicate, especially when the topic is sensitive.
“You have to put yourself in a position to be uncomfortable because they aren’t comfortable conversations,” White says. “Especially when you first start having courageous conversations. I want you to get out of your comfort zone. That’s how we get better as a community.”