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How is Black History Month examined in Arizona? It depends who you ask

By Tom Maxedon
Published: Wednesday, February 1, 2023 - 4:48am
Updated: Wednesday, February 1, 2023 - 9:22am

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Eric Elmore
"I AM" is one of many photos taken by Eric Elmore whose work is featured in an exhibit of the same title at the Arizona Heritage Center in Tempe. It examines the Black Lives Matter movement in Phoenix and runs from Feb. 3 to late June 2023.

February is Black History Month across the U.S. 

But how is it being examined in Arizona?

It depends who you ask — keeping in mind the few answers which show up in a single story about the topic certainly shouldn't be considered exhaustive.

Those who signpost the shortest month of the year as a supposed ironic — even iconic—  symbol of the short shrift African Americans receive when it comes to honoring their contributions to the country would do well to note February was chosen for a reason.

Nationally, the effort to bring more attention to Black history was promoted by historian, journalist and University of Chicago alum Dr. Carter G. Woodson. He founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) in 1915 in Chicago. The headquarters now is in Washington, D.C.

About a decade later, ASALH started what was known at the time as the first official, "'Negro History Week' during the second week of February. And why that week? Because it encompasses the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass," according to the organization's website.

Woodson's "thesis was that all peoples in the world had made a contribution to civilization and once people on a mass scale understood this, there would be greater respect for all races, all ethnic groups," said Raymond H. Boone, founder and editor of the “Richmond Free Press," spoken in a video series called, “The African American Trailblazers,” created by Emmy Award-winning producer Eric A. Futterman.  

Some 60 years later, Congress passed Public Law 99-244, marking the month as "National Black (Afro-American) History Month.”

Following that in 1996, the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center opened as "the steward of the African American experience in Phoenix," according to its website.

The building is currently closed.

But what about structures and communities that are gone, forever?

“Where are some neighborhoods, Black communities, long-established institutions and that sort of thing?”  

Those were some questions stirring in the mind of Dr. Meskeram Glegziahber when she first arrived in the Valley about a decade ago. They propelled her to ask further, “Where Are All the Black Folks? Popular Narratives and the Erasure of Black History in Arizona.” 

Her research was published last October in “The Journal Of Arizona History” and can be viewed in its entirety through the end of March 2023.

ASU
Dr. Meskerem Glegziabher is director of Inclusion & Community Engagement for the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University and is an assistant clinical professor.

She currently is an assistant clinical professor and director of Inclusion & Community Engagement for the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University.

Glegziahber honors her Ethiopian and Eretrian descent and moved to the U.S. when she was an early teen so her family could escape war in East Africa. She spent time in Nashville and went to college in North Carolina before moving to the metro region.

But when she got here, she remarked, "It was a very stark contrast to me that I didn’t see many Black faces.”

Later, she found that according to the Arizona Archives Matrix Project, "the Black community is represented in less than 1% of archival materials in the state, despite making up 4.7% of its population," based on 2020 U.S Census data.

Her research examines many things, including the erasure of African American landmarks in Phoenix.

Glegziahber said, “more than half of the 175 historic properties identified by the city’s 2004 African American Historic Property Survey have been torn down. When we talk about erasure, it’s not necessarily some unified strategy to erase history but it happens for various reasons. Some of the really important properties that were demolished were part of a much larger project for things like building Chase Field.”

Hear Meskeram Glegziabher's interview with KJZZ's Tom Maxedon

For those living in other parts of the state like Tucson, questions about the preservation of African American history on a larger scale arose.  

Bob Elliott, former University of Arizona (U of A) basketball player, relayed a conversation his wife Beverly had with their grandson who asked, "'Where’s a place that I can go here, to see people who look like me?' And my wife said, ‘Well, let me check into it.’”  

Eliott remembered what ensued.

“‘There is not an African American museum in the state of Arizona,’" he told his wife. "'That’s what you gotta go tell our grandson.' And she tells him and he said, ‘there’s no black people around here that have done anything?'”  

That conversation led to the Elliotts founding the African American Museum of Southern Arizona on the U of A campus. It recently celebrated its grand opening the weekend prior to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

Back in the Valley, the Arizona Heritage Center in Tempe will launch “I AM: A Document of the Black Lives Matter Movement in Phoenix” on Friday, February 3 in conjunction with Black History Month. The exhibit features black and white photos by Eric Elmore who works chiefly in that medium and also writings he calls “I AM” statements collected from protestors. 

Elmore said out of the thousands he collected, many were repetitive. “One that sticks out in particular for me is: ‘I am afraid to be Black in America.’ [Others include], ‘I am afraid for my son or daughter.’ ‘I am deemed an immediate threat,’ and also ones where people came out and said, ‘I am a survivor of police brutality.’”  

Hear Eric Elmore's interview with KJZZ's Tom Maxedon

Documentation of omission, marginalization, brutality and murder are certainly examples of Black history. 

Other narratives shine a gentler beam according to Pamela Young who owns Phoenix-based Young Agency which specializes in casting ethnic talent for a range of media and film opportunities.

She agrees putting African Americans in such spotlights are ways to showcase they are part of the present history, that they matter because they are seen. 

The Young Agency
Pamela Young (front center) is owner of The Young Agency in Phoenix. She is pictured with models at a red carpet event during the Chandler International Film Festival held in January 2023.

A trailblazer in her own regard, Young became the first African American employee hired by the Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau in 1986. “Within two weeks of being there as a secretary, I became a mid-level manager and I traveled around the U.S. promoting Phoenix as a destination site for tourists,” she said.

Young recently appeared at the Chandler International Film Festival where she released, "MODELS ON THE MOVE: Journey to Kids Fashion Week," and "MODELS ON THE MOVE: Journey to Teen Fashion Week."

Even though research from scholars like Glegziahber shows a woeful lack of Black history featured in Arizona, she still offers hope the future will continue to unpack it, if only people will ask. "While I talk about this dearth of information in the official archives or the official history books, local Black communities have been keeping those memories and those histories alive,” she said. 

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