This is coming in right under the wire, but I’ve not forgotten that February is Black History Month.
Some argue that this observance tends to unfairly box the entire encyclopedia of “black history” into just a few weeks, when it should be studied all year. Indeed, several studies have found that a designated Black History Month can promote a seasonal emphasis on the contributions of African-Americans at the expense of a thorough examination at other times.
I can’t argue the point, but it also seems that without a specific observance, nothing would ever happen. Ideally, the contributions of all Americans, regardless of heritage, would be fairly represented in our “routine” history.
We still have a way to go.
For many years, the Bulletin has used the month of February to present a series of profiles of Americans who have made significant contributions to society. This would not have been possible without the assistance of a few local residents who pointed newspaper staff members in the direction we needed to go by providing names and biographies.
A few of the names on that list are familiar, but most are not. I think that’s the point.
One of the most compelling profiles, to me anyway, is that of Dr. Charles R. Drew, whose research in the storage of blood plasma in the 1930s and 1940s continues to mean life or death for millions of people.
Dr. Drew developed a technique for long-term preservation of blood plasma that helped save lives on World War II battlefields. His doctoral dissertation at Columbia University was on the condition of blood stored in blood banks and the method of storing blood as plasma to increase storage life. He later supervised the blood-plasma division of New York City’s Blood Transfusion Association, which was involved in collecting blood for the British after they were attacked by Germany in 1940.
When America went to war in 1941, Drew was named director of the blood bank for the National Research Council, which collected blood for the U.S. Army and Navy. His work developed into the blood bank of the American Red Cross.
Dr. Drew went back to medical practice and teaching, disillusioned that society insisted on keeping blood segregated by race despite proof that there is no biological reason to do so.
On April 1, 1950, he was killed in an automobile accident. He was 45.
Perhaps it’s the circumstances of Dr. Drew’s death that cause me to single him out here. He and three other physicians were traveling from Washington, D.C., to Tuskegee, Ala., to attend an annual free clinic. He had been in surgery throughout the night, but ignored that fatigue to make the trip anyway.
Dr. Drew was driving through North Carolina when he lost control of the car, which overturned three times. His foot was trapped under the brake pedal, and he suffered severe leg wounds. Fortunately, his passengers were not seriously injured.
He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died a half-hour later. Contrary to a myth, which was repeated in an episode of the television series M*A*S*H, he did not die because he was denied medical care because of his race.
This resonates with me because four months after Dr. Drew died, almost to the day, I was born in that same North Carolina hospital.
The number of other achievers who could be singled out is endless. There’s Madame C.J. Walker (1867-1919), the first black female millionaire, who created specialized hair-care products. Elijah J. McCoy (1843-1929), invented a technique for lubricating machinery while it was in use, leading to the phrase “The Real McCoy” because his customers refused to accept imitations. Then there’s Garrett Morgan (1875-1963), who in 1914 invented a firefighter’s breathing device that was the first gas mask used by soldiers in World War I. He also developed the automatic traffic signal in 1923.
One late-night television comedian often says, “There’s no ‘off’ position on the genius switch.” Well, there’s no color position on the genius switch, either, and Black History Month helps us remember that.
Gene Deason is a former editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. He may be contacted at email@example.com.