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Thiele: African American History Month Is Time to Celebrate Contributions

In 1914, nestled in lower Harlem, stood the newly finished Hurtig & Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater, a whites-only venue. For 20 years, theater patrons and performers ignored the rise of one of America’s largest black communities around them. But in 1934, the theater reopened proudly as a locale to showcase talented black performers. With a new name and a new audience, the Apollo Theater became vital to the emergence of American music genres and major black musicians. Today it stands as an important historical landmark, a witness to the African American culture of creativity and achievement.

For over 35 years, February has served as African American History Month. As a nation, we celebrate the accomplishments of influential people of color such as Harriet Tubman, who worked tirelessly leading slaves to freedom using the Underground Railroad, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who fought against racial intolerance and segregation. The strength and courage they showed in the face of appalling discrimination is truly an inspiration.

While these historical figures still inspire us, African Americans today continue to break down barriers and make history. Nearly eight years ago, President Barack Obama became the first African-American man to be elected president of the United States. As his presidency comes to an end, the legacy he leaves behind will continue to inspire future generations.

New York State, in particular, has played a significant role in black history. In 1838, James Weeks bought a plot of land in Brooklyn that became one of America’s first free black communities. The neighborhood of Weeksville was home to many freed slaves from the south and at its height was home to 700 families.

Our state also served as home to many prominent black history icons. Born in Brooklyn, Shirley Chisholm served as a member of the New York State Assembly until 1968. She then became the first black woman elected to Congress and went on to be the first female African-American candidate to run for president in 1972. A Harlem native, Colin Powell became the United States’ first African-American Secretary of State in 2001. Liberation leaders such as Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X both lived and worked in New York.

Throughout our nation’s history, we have seen African Americans rise, breaking through barriers that limited freedom, education and wealth. African American History Month is a time to honor that perseverance and strength. As we celebrate this year, it’s important to recognize that the fight for equality is not over. New York will continue to lead the way to ensure justice and equality for all.

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