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Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

By: Charlene Hunter James

I’ve been fortunate to have witnessed black history in the making, as my mother and father were very active in the civil rights’ movement. My parents instilled in me the need to not just excel but to be an advocate for the rights of all. 

I was reminded recently of their struggles and triumphs in watching the movie Selma. The film has sparked very personal memories about what my parents, siblings and I encountered when I was a child in Pensacola, Florida, and I believe it has also opened the eyes of others. My parents, who held positions in the NAACP, were among the trailblazers in the integration of Pensacola Catholic High School, and they worked tirelessly with other community leaders in integrating eating establishments and public transportation.

It seems like conversations about “the struggle” are occurring everywhere -- in homes, restaurants, movie theaters, and, coffee shops. I sorely hope that these conversations will continue. The younger generation needs to know that they are standing on the shoulders of giants. Today, black Americans can vote, get a college education, be captains of industry, and many of their dreams realized. But it’s important to not forget that these opportunities did not come overnight and did not come without the struggle of those who came before us.

In 1921, Texan Bessie Coleman became the world’s first female African American pilot. It was a huge accomplishment considering Coleman, born and raised in tiny towns in Northwest Texas, grew up picking cotton. She didn’t let her past hold her back. Instead, Coleman attended aviation school in France, and in 1921, obtained her pilot’s license. Nicknamed “Brave Bessie” because she liked to perform daredevil stunts, Coleman paved the way for other people of color to become pilots.

Ms. Coleman’s accomplishments helped many people of color discover that they could reach new heights. Among them is Ralph Bunche. In 1950, Mr. Bunche, in his 40s, became the first African-American and person of color in the world to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He earned the award for his successful peace-keeping and mediation efforts in the Arab-Israeli conflict which ended in 1949.

Paving the way for thousands to be educated was Herman Sweatt who is considered primarily responsible for the establishment of Texas State University for Negroes (later renamed Texas Southern University), a college for blacks that included a law school.

We were inspired by Hattie Mae White, a teacher who became a president of the PTA, and later, a member of the Houston School Board, which made her the first black elected to public office in Texas since Reconstruction. White fought for desegregation and held public office for almost 10 years before returning to teaching. She was 70 when she retired.

Also changing the landscape of history and politics was Barbara Jordan. This educator-turned-politician from Houston’s Fifth Ward, a predominantly African American community, attended Texas Southern University in Houston and Boston University School of Law. Jordan became the first African American elected to the Texas Senate since 1883. In 1973, she became the first African American woman from a Southern state to serve in Congress.

The notable accomplishments of all these individuals would not have been realized without their belief that it is possible to change the course of their lives and course of history, and a reason we at AARP are proud to join in the celebration of Black History Month.

Ms. Hunter James is a member of the AARP Texas all-volunteer Executive Council. Photos of Ms. Hunter James are available upon request at or 832-325-2236.


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