Black History Month: People of colour, people of faithWritten by Subby Szterszky
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February is Black History Month. It’s an annual occasion to recognize notable African Americans who’ve shaped the course of culture in North America and around the world.
What often goes unnoticed, however, is that many of these famous figures were men and women of faith whose achievements were born out of their identity as followers of Jesus. Some were engaged in official church ministry as preachers, missionaries and theologians. Many others allowed their faith in Christ to inform their work as artists, scientists, scholars, athletes, journalists, educators and social reformers.
It’s good to commemorate such individuals for their contributions to human thriving as our fellow image-bearers of God. But it’s even better to celebrate them as our sisters and brothers in the Lord, whom he used as instruments of his redemptive purposes in the world.
Here’s a small sampling of a few of their stories.
Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)
Born into slavery in upstate New York, Sojourner Truth escaped with her infant daughter and then went to court to free her young son, the first black woman ever to win a court case against a white man. She changed her name to Sojourner Truth because she believed God had called her to travel the country and preach the Gospel of Jesus. She became a fiery advocate for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights, and her famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” became a touchstone of the early women’s suffrage movement. Her activism in the cause of abolition led to a meeting with President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. Truth’s passion for freedom and equality for all people, whether men or women, black or white, was driven by her faith in God as Creator and Christ as Saviour of humanity. Her final words at the age of 86 were, “Follow the Lord Jesus.”
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)
Similar to his compatriot, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in Maryland to become one of the leading figures of the abolitionist movement. He was also a champion of women’s rights, especially the right to vote, and was the only African American to attend the Seneca Falls Convention for women’s rights. An eloquent author and speaker, he wrote several autobiographies to illustrate the realities of slavery and travelled Europe, speaking in support of abolition and against segregation in society and the church. Douglass opposed militant abolitionism, preferring persuasion to force of arms, and after the Civil War he became an ambassador to Haiti, the first African American to hold high public office. Using the teachings of Scripture, he argued powerfully against the sins of slavery, racial bigotry and the oppression of women, especially among professing Christians.
Harriet Tubman (1822-1913)
Yet another escapee from slavery, Harriet Tubman led a life that reads like a script for a Netflix historical drama. Like her friend Frederick Douglass, Tubman was one of her era’s leading champions of abolition and women’s rights. She used the Underground Railroad to rescue dozens of runaway slaves, including her own family, leading them to safety and freedom in the Northern States and in Canada. During the Civil War, she worked for the Union Army as a cook, a nurse, and eventually an armed scout and spy. She was the first woman to lead an armed expedition during the war, orchestrating a raid that freed some 700 enslaved people. A fervent Christian, Tubman experienced dreams through which she believed God was guiding her endeavours. “‘Twant me, ‘twas the Lord,” she insisted. “I always told him, ‘I trust to you. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect you to lead me,’ and he always did.”
George Washington Carver (1864-1943)
One of the preeminent scientists of the early 20th century, George Washington Carver was born in Missouri just before slavery was abolished in 1865. Although his educational options were limited, he earned a Bachelor of Science degree, the first African American to do so, specializing in botany, chemistry and agronomy. He became the director of agricultural research at Tuskegee University in Alabama and was an advisor to President Theodore Roosevelt on agricultural issues. Carver developed strategies to improve soils depleted by overproduction of cotton and created hundreds of derivatives from peanuts and sweet potatoes to help poor farmers diversify. He saw his scientific research as an extension of his faith in God. “I didn’t make these discoveries,” he said. “God has only worked through me to reveal to his children some of his wonderful providence.”
Jackie Robinson (1919-1972)
When Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, he broke the colour barrier and became the first African American to play major league baseball in the 20th century. The president of the Dodgers, Branch Rickey, was looking for a player with world-class talent and impeccable character who could be his vanguard for integrating baseball, and he found that player in Robinson. Both men were devout Methodists, and both knew it would be hard. To make it work, Rickey asked Robinson to commit to non-retaliation, to turning the other cheek. Faced with death threats and racist abuse from fans, opponents and teammates, Robinson was true to his word, praying for grace every evening. In so doing, he not only ushered in the racial integration of professional sports, but also gave impetus to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement.
Rosa Parks (1913-2005)
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a seamstress at a department store in Montgomery, Alabama, was riding the bus home after a long day at work. When the bus driver ordered her to give up her seat to a white man, Parks refused and was arrested. She wasn’t the first to defy bus segregation rules, but because of her unimpeachable character, civil rights leaders felt hers was the perfect case to challenge segregation laws on a constitutional basis. Her trial led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and was a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. It also cost her and her husband their jobs and forced them to leave Montgomery and move to Detroit. In her memoirs, Parks noted that it was her Christian faith that gave her the strength to do what she did. “Since I have always been a strong believer in God,” she said, “I knew that he was with me, and only he could get me through that next step.”
Katherine Johnson (1918-2020)
A brilliant mathematician who worked at NASA for over three decades, Katherine Johnson saw her accomplishments go largely unnoticed until many years after her retirement. During the heyday of the 1960s space race and before the widespread use of computers, Johnson was part of a group of African American women who did all the calculations by hand that allowed astronauts to go into space. Johnson could solve problems that stumped the white male engineers, and she was instrumental in the success of NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs. But as a woman of colour, she was kept out of sight and out of mind and subjected to egregious displays of racism and sexism. Her Presbyterian faith gave her the support to rise above it all with grace and good will, to pursue her work with enthusiasm, and to recognize that her talent for mathematics was a gift from God.
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)
It’s difficult to summarize the life and influence of Martin Luther King Jr. in a short paragraph. A Baptist minister who rose to prominence as the central voice of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, King is one of the most pivotal figures in 20th century history. His career, cut short when he was assassinated in 1968, was a series of iconic moments: the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the Selma Marches; his arrest and “Letter from Birmingham Jail”; the March on Washington and his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The latter was key in bringing about the Civil Rights Act of 1963 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Contrary to militant activists, King espoused peaceful protest as the means to lasting societal change, expressed in his famous quote: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Beyond Black History Month
Remembering notable African Americans who shaped our culture should not be limited to one month in the year. Nor should it be limited to a handful of the most famous among them. Even when we focus only on those who shared our Christian faith, a basic list such as this could quickly expand to include Phillis Wheatley, Booker T. Washington, Thomas Dorsey, Maya Angelou and many others.
Poets, musicians, statesmen, social activists. Runaway slaves who never learned to read or write but impacted their world with acts of mercy and kindness. Educated thought leaders who moved in the avenues of cultural influence and spoke truth to power. They carried themselves with grace as children of the King, even as they faced intolerable racial hatred and insisted on the dignity due them as image-bearers of their Creator.
We live in a cultural moment where we’ve become painfully aware that racism, both individual and systemic, has not gone away. As followers of Jesus, then, we want to celebrate our brothers and sisters of colour, past and present, not just in February but throughout the year. We wish to recognize their achievements, but also to recognize them. We want to move beyond appreciation to affirmation and love.
Above all, we seek to delight in the wondrous diversity God has woven into his human creation and into his church. It won’t heal the rifts and injustice in our social fabric overnight. But it’s an excellent place to start.
Sources and further reading
Thabiti Anyabwile, “Reflecting on the African-American church during Black History Month,” The Gospel Coalition, February 2, 2009.
Joe Carter, “9 things you should know about Black History Month,” The Gospel Coalition, February 2, 2014.
Charles Colson, “Follow the Lord Jesus: Black History Month,” CBN, accessed February 9, 2021.
CT Editors, “Black History Month: 20 stories Christians should know,” Christianity Today, February 21, 2020.
Kimberly Davis, “Black History Month and the common language of Christ,” Think Christian, February 18, 2011.
Kimberly Davis, “Reconciliation, Black History Month and why ‘this race thing’ matters,” Think Christian, February 15, 2012.
Zach Kincaid, “Black History Month: 10 African American church leaders who shaped Christianity in America,” Sharefaith, February 2017.
David Mathis, “We need Black History Month,” Desiring God, February 1, 2017.
Trillia Newbell, “More than month-long,” Desiring God, February 2, 2013.
Jemar Tisby, “Why Christians should celebrate black history month,” Urban Faith, February 2020.
Karen Waddles, “Black History Month: Telling the story of God’s mighty power,” True Woman, February 8, 2012.
© 2021 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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