WASHINGTON, October 30, 2013 – Observing black youth participating in a chaotic scene jumping the fence of Howard University’s annual homecoming celebration was hard to stomach. Apparently, getting to see the concert that included national music artists was worth both the dangers of scaling the fence and violent encounters with the police. It is sad to think that few if any of these students responded to last week’s call by Congresswoman Eleanor Homes Norton to turn out and help lead the revival of the historic Woodlawn Cemetery where a wealth of black history is buried.
The men and women interred inside the fence of Woodlawn did much more for the current generation of black Americans than any of the well-known, but hardly historic, entertainers performing inside the fence at Howard University.
The historic figures buried in that obscure cemetery helped to simultaneously uplift America and a race of people both figuratively bound by the legacy of slavery. One well-marked grave is that of John Mercer Langston (1829-1897), the first black man elected to public office in U.S. History. Langston was not only the great-uncle of the famous poet Langston Hughes, but also the first appointed president of Howard University and the dean of the law school, which he helped found. In 1889 he became the first black Civil Rights Republican elected to congress in the state of Virginia.
The vast majority of the young leaders lost their composure when told Rap artist “2 Chainz” was slated to perform. The up and coming leaders could recount plenty of stories about multi-talented millionaire celebrity Howard alumnus Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, but none of the students interviewed knew the name John Mercer Langston.
Another great Civil Rights Republican buried at Woodlawn is Blanche Kelso Bruce (1841-1897) who served Mississippi as the second elected black U.S. Senator and the first to serve a full term.
One of the most important lessons of history is that if we as black Americans do not tell our story to the next generation, other people will tell our story for us. A race that does not control the content of its own history dooms the generations to follow. Holmes-Norton’s invitation was an opportunity for Howard students to make the historic Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery part of their homecoming week by adding a little known, but proud spirit of freedom to the their homecoming celebration. Norton did her best to use her own place in history to bring attention to a place where great businessmen, surgeons, church founders and many Howard alumni are memorialized.
How many Howard students know about prominent female attorney Clara Burrill Bruce (1882-1947) who was married to the son of Blanche Bruce and was the second black woman to pass the Massachusetts State bar examination? Then there is Lillian Evanti who graduated from Howard University with a bachelors degree in music who is famous for being the first black American female opera singer and toured throughout Europe and South America. Both of these barrier-breaking women were proudly laid to rest at Woodlawn.
The passing on of these names and their legacies to the current generation has been neglected. There is no wonder why so many of our youth are lost.