BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — The month of February is meant to honor the achievements of Black Americans and reflect on the roles African Americans have made across the nation. Here at 23ABC while we celebrate these stories all year round. This month we're kicking off a series of courageous conversations around the community.
What once started out as a week-long observance has now turned into a month-long celebration to make sure that the men and women who helped African Americans get to where they are today, do not go unnoticed. Kern County leaders agree it's important to bring these stories to the forefront year-round.
“The African Americans today, the African Americans that have past, and our future generations. [I want them to know] that we are productive, that we are workers, and we will continue to strive to better the areas that we reside in and be committed, in continually, to uphold and do economic development within the city and county,” said Dee Slade, Executive Director of African American Network of Kern County.
Black History Month is a time to celebrate how far Black history and Black Americans have come. While the community has made strides nationally, Slade said the valley is responsible for the Black population here now.
“The beacon for the heavy migration of African American's, stemmed out of the Central Valley, right here in what you know today as Bakersfield and the county of Kern.”
Slade added it’s because of the ancestors that developed the community with drive and perseverance that made the town what it is today.
“There’s a lot of history here. There was a struggle, of course, it was during the time of segregation, but the individuals, those early pioneers, they left a deep legacy. A legacy of commitment, a legacy of making the best out of the best, but also creating something out of nothing and they did.”
There were several important African American figures who made significant influences in Kern County, according to data from the African American Network of Kern County. It all started in 1880 with Fanny Price Reese. She was the first Black woman to come to Kern County and built her home in central Bakersfield. Then in 1884, over 2,000 arrived in Kern County to plant 300,000 acres of cotton.
If you jump to a century later, in 1990 was when the African American Network of Kern County formed. Two years later, the buffalo soldiers would come together.
“You have a lot of advancement of African Americans, but not very many individuals, whether they’re African American or not, are aware of the major contributions that we’ve made here and are still making,” said Slade.
Not only did the Black forefathers leave a long-lasting legacy, Nick Hill, President and CEO of Kern County Black Chamber of Commerce, said they had to put their boots to the ground.
“They were slaves, and they didn’t have the opportunities that they have today. They had to fight tooth and nail for everything they received throughout the years and the struggle was real.”
But Hill said now, during Black History Month and throughout the year, it’s a time to be an ally.
“I don’t care if your white, black, Hispanic, or anything, we all need to come together, we all need to help each other. This is not a Black history thing; this is just history and evolution at the same time.”
It's important to honor the contributions made by Black ancestors here in Kern County. Now, through a grant from the Wheeler Foundation, Slade is compiling history starting back in 1880. Slade added that the businesses they built helped flourish Kern County's economic development.
“Downtown on 18th, 19th 17th street, 20th, 21st and 24th, they had businesses. After the fire, of course, the heavy migration of them from downtown moved to what you know today as the southeast.”
Not to mention the famous writers across different subjects.
“Medical, and some of your educational and juvenile writings, came right out of Bakersfield. Under the headings of African Americans that produced or created the language.”
President of the Bakersfield NAACP chapter, Patrick Jackson, said honoring this month helps the African American community in the future.
“By celebrating the accomplishments and the things that we have done as a community, there’s a forefront of people being able to see who they are, and so when you see who you are, you can see what you can become.”
Both Hill and Jackson said while progress has been made locally for the Black community, there’s still more work to be done.
“I think that understanding our history is important, but the other thing is that we’re still struggling to get our foot in the door. We’re still struggling for that bootstrap that we don’t have,” said Hill.
“I think major progress [has happened] in our economic development, our educational system, and health as well. There’s a lot of disparities there, we made some progress in some of these areas but there’s so much more that we can do,” said Jackson.
Slade’s advice for when you feel that not enough is being done: “Once you learn your history, you will have more pride in who you are, and that will hopefully motivate you to start doing something. Stop talking about the problems but come up with the solution because there’s pride in working hand in hand with your community representatives.”
Slade also said this month is for all cultures to come together to learn the history so there are more people coming together to take action, to flourish the Kern County community.
How Black History Month Began
In case you didn't know the story of Black History Month began in 1915, half a century after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States.
The celebration grew out of “Negro History Week,” the brainchild of noted historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans.
By the late 1960s, thanks in part to the Civil Rights Movement and a growing awareness of Black identity that week evolved into Black History Month on many college campuses.
President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976.
And this year's theme for Black History Month is “Black Health and Wellness” which explores the legacy of Black scholars and medical practitioners in western medicine.
WATCH DEE SLADE'S FULL INTERVIEW HERE: