"Black history in my family wasn't a month; it was our life."
The Hon. Ann Claire Williams (Ret.), of counsel in the Issues & Appeals Practice in the Chicago Office, heads Jones Day's pro bono efforts to advance the rule of law in Africa.
When I think about Black History Month, President Barack Obama's 2016 reflection resonates with me:
"Black History Month shouldn't be treated as though it is somehow separate from our collective American history or somehow just boiled down to a compilation of greatest hits from the March on Washington, or from some of our sports heroes …. It's about the lived, shared experience of all African Americans, high and low, famous and obscure, and how those experiences have shaped and challenged and ultimately strengthened America."
My parents, Dorothy and Joshua Williams, were far from famous. My dad was born in South Carolina, 51 years after the Civil War ended. My mom also grew up in South Carolina, with the vestiges of slavery still present. Segregation, the Ku Klux Klan, and voter suppression permeated their existence.
My mother and father worked long, hard hours for years to put themselves through college. Although they earned degrees from historically Black colleges, they had difficulty finding jobs in Detroit because they were Black. My mother was an education major, but she could not get a job as a full-time public school teacher for 18 years. She taught at a training school for delinquent children for 12 years and as a substitute for six years. My father tried to sell insurance but was a poor salesman, so he drove a bus for 20 years. Like many well-educated and professional Black men at the time, when he applied for a supervisor position, he was told by his white boss he was not qualified. I am confident that my father, who had been a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, was up to the task.
My parents' experiences shaped, challenged, and ultimately strengthened me. Despite all they and their parents and enslaved grandparents had endured, my parents were not bitter. My father did become fed up with the bus company. When he had enough money in his pension, he quit his job and returned to school to become a teacher. As fate would have it, we were in college at the same time and even had a few classes together.
During a public speaking class, I was asked who I admired most in life. I said, with tears rolling down my cheeks, "Daddy." As a child, I loved seeing how handsome he was in his bus driver's uniform. I enjoyed running down the aisles after his shift and helping him count and roll coins in coin wrappers. But in that class, it really hit me: "Bus driver, college degree. College degree, bus driver."
When I got home that night, I asked, "Daddy, why aren't you burning down the streets of Detroit?" He answered: "No one can take my education away. Being a bus driver is good, honest work. I wanted you and your two sisters to have a better life. So I did what I had to do. Plus, I really used my psychology training with the people on the bus!"
I wondered how my parents' spirits were never broken, despite the tremendous obstacles they faced. I realized that they took strength from their ancestors and their struggles, and from the collective experience of other Black Americans. My parents always reminded my sisters and me of our history as a family and as Black Americans. Black history in my family wasn't a month; it was our life. My parents talked about their segregated Southern grade schools and high schools where the textbooks were old, marked up, torn, hand-me-downs from white students. Their Black teachers taught them about slavery and heroic Black leaders and inventors, even though they could have been fired for doing so.
My mom and dad were not "activists," but civil rights was a constant topic in dinner conversations. We watched on our only television as fire hoses and dogs were used against peaceful civil rights marchers. We attended marches in Detroit ourselves, and I went with my mom to see Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak. She had graduated from North Carolina A&T, whose students bravely started the first lunch counter sit-ins. Her support of the students inspired me to stand on Detroit street corners to collect money for the Freedom Riders who rode in buses to the South to challenge segregation.
My parents strongly believed that if we dreamed big dreams, worked hard, did not give up, stood up, and gave back, we could triumph over any obstacles. I took their lessons to heart and attribute any successes I have to them. I also draw strength from my other ancestors. Many of us do. But I have to admit that I am saddened when I hear others tell stories about visiting the town, city, or country of their people. One of the many tragedies of slavery is that most African Americans, like me, do not know the exact place, the language, or the cultural traditions of our ancestral homes. I learned because of DNA testing that I am from West Africa. That's it.
Part of what has always inspired me to work to advance the rule of law in Africa is knowing that my roots are somewhere on that vast continent, even though I will never know the name of the village. I am grateful that Jones Day, and in particular former Managing Partner Steve Brogan and current Managing Partner Greg Shumaker, have given me the opportunity to create and lead our pro bono Rule of Law in Africa Initiative. I am also grateful for the enthusiastic support around the Firm, from the many lawyers who give of their time to dedicated staff who prepare, assemble, and stuff suitcases of materials for our programs. I believe our African partners are advancing the rule of law, which will brighten the light of justice for their people and lead to more stable justice systems and economies.
We all have a history and a story to tell. All of our histories are important. We have all been blessed in some way by the sacrifice of those who came before us, whether they endured political, ethnic, or religious oppression; famine; the Holocaust; internment camps; or slavery. Whether your family members were forced to give up their country like Native Americans, forced to come like mine, or chose to come, none of us got to where we are alone. Our histories and experiences shape, challenge, and ultimately strengthen our families, our communities, our countries, and our world. This month recognizes that the lived, shared experience of African Americans needs to be shared by all as part of the story of our nation and our world.