February marks Black History Month, a federally recognized, nationwide celebration that calls on all Americans to reflect on the significant roles that African-Americans have played in shaping US history. But how did this celebration come to be – and how has it shaped the Chippewa Valley by one local legend?
Carter G. Woodson, considered a pioneer in the study of African-American history, is given much of the credit for Black History Month. The story begins in 1915, half a century after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States. Disturbed that history textbooks largely ignored America’s black population, Woodson took on the challenge of writing black Americans into the nation’s history. That September, the Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson and the prominent minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by Black Americans and other peoples of African descent.
Known today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), the group sponsored a national Negro History week in 1926, choosing the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Woodson chose the second week of February for his celebration because it marks the birthdays of two men who greatly influenced the black American population:
- Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery and became an abolitionist and civil rights leader; though his birthdate isn’t known, he celebrated it on February 14.
- President Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery in America’s confederate states; he was born on February 12.
For his work, Woodson has been called the Father of Black History. The event inspired schools and communities nationwide to organize local celebrations, establish history clubs and host performances and lectures.
But where does a local legend come to play? 22 years before breaking Babe Ruth’s legendary record of 714 home runs, Henry “Hank” Aaron was an 18-year-old from Mobile, Alabama arriving at the Eau Claire airport. Aaron had just been signed by city’s Class C minor league baseball team, the Eau Claire Bears. Aaron played part of his early career in Eau Claire when he joined the Bears for the 1952 season. He won Rookie of the Year in the Northern League that season, hitting .336 with nine home runs. During his time in the Chippewa Valley Aaron was faced with many new obstacles and ones that were not easy. Aaron grew up with Jim Crow laws in Mobile, Alabama, joined the Negro League at age 18, and was playing with only Black opponents, and Black teammates. But then made the move to Western Wisconsin and was dumped into a virtually all-white city. Fitting into a foreign city and playing baseball was a major culture shock for Aaron, but “Hammerin’ Hank” did not disappoint.
In 1994, a statue honoring Aaron was placed outside Carson Park, where Aaron played and where high school, collegiate, and amateur baseball is still played to this day. Forty-two years later, Aaron approached the stadium where the Eau Claire Bears once played, an estimated five thousand people surrounded a newly raised bronze statue of a young “Hank” Aaron at bat. “I had goosebumps,” Aaron noted later. “A lot of things happened to me in my twenty-three years as a ballplayer, but nothing touched me more than that day in Eau Claire.”
Aaron is regarded as one of the greatest baseball players of all time. His 755 career home runs broke the long-standing MLB record set by Babe Ruth and stood as the most for 33 years; Aaron still holds many other MLB batting records. He hit 24 or more home runs every year from 1955 through 1973, and is one of only two players to hit 30 or more home runs in a season at least fifteen times. In 1999, The Sporting News ranked Aaron fifth on its list of the “100 Greatest Baseball Players”. In 1982, he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
For the people of Eau Claire and the Chippewa Valley, Aaron’s summer two years before his Major League debut with the Milwaukee Braves symbolizes a magical time, when baseball fans in a small city in Wisconsin could live a part of the dream. Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record and gracefully left his mark as one of baseball’s greatest all-around players, died in his sleep on January 22, 2021. He was 86.