Sen. Nelson on the importance of Black History Month
February 28, 2002
Mr. President, as our celebration of Black History Month draws to a close today, I would like to acknowledge the rich and ongoing contributions made by some of my state's African American citizens. Of course, the efforts of African Americans in Florida and throughout our nation's history should be recognized everyday - not just during Black History Month. Florida has been blessed with a remarkable number of prominent African American citizens, who have served our state and the nation with distinction in a variety of fields. I would like to mention but a few from Florida: Although not a Florida native, Mary McLeod Bethune, founded one of our oldest and most prestigious Black Colleges, Bethune-Cookman College. In addition to serving as the president of Bethune-Cookman, she also was one of the leading civil rights activists of her time, and the first African American woman to serve on a presidential commission. Justice Joseph Woodrow Hatchett was born in Clearwater, Florida. In 1975, Judge Hatchett became the first African American elected a Justice of the Supreme Court of the State of Florida. It marked the first time an African-American won a statewide office since Reconstruction. James Weldon Johnson, the first African American executive director of the NAACP, author, lyricist and creator of the National Negro Anthem, and poet was born in Jacksonville, Florida. Eatonville, Florida native Zora Neale Hurston is a folklorist, anthropologist and acclaimed author of such works as "Their Eyes Were Watching God" and "Of Mules and Men." Timothy Thomas Fortune was born in Marianna, Florida, in 1856. He was the editor and publisher of a newspaper called the New York Age. His paper was a platform for defending the civil rights of both Northern and Southern Blacks. Asa Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was born in Crescent City, Florida. The Brotherhood was the first union founded by and for African Americans. John Henry Lloyd was born in Palatka, Florida. He was a baseball player and manager in the Negro Leagues, and was considered one of the greatest shortstops in the game. In 1930, as a member of the New York Lincoln Giants, he played in the first Negro League game at Yankee Stadium against the Baltimore Black Sox. Sidney Poitier, the renowned actor who won an Academy Award in 1964 for his performance in "Lilies of the Field", was born in Miami, Florida. Winston Scott, one of our nation's pioneering African American astronauts, was born in Miami, Florida. In 1992, Scott was selected by NASA and served as a mission specialist on flights in 1996 and in 1997. He has logged a total of 24 days, 14 hours and 34 minutes in space. Augusta Christine Savage was born in Green Cove Springs, Florida. In 1923 Savage was among some 100 young American women selected to attend a summer program at Fontainebleau, outside Paris, but was refused admission once the program directors became aware of her race. In the mid-1930s she founded and became the first director of the Harlem Community Arts Center, which played a crucial role in the development of many young African American artists. In addition, she became the first black elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. General Chappie James, the first African American four-star general, was born in Pensacola, Florida. General James became one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, earning his wings in World War II and going on to serve as a fighter pilot in Korea and Vietnam. In 1975, he received his fourth star and became the commander of the North American Air Defense system. I could go on. As we remember the contributions of these, and so many other African American citizens, duty calls us to remember also the difficulties this community faced as our nation traveled through the struggle to achieve full civil rights for all people. I want to highlight two small initiatives that will help preserve these important memories. Florida is home to more than a dozen former Negro League baseball players. These men are nearing the end of their lives and have never received a pension for their time in the league - unlike their counterparts who played for Major League Baseball. Although Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947, baseball didn't truly integrate until a decade after Robinson's historic feat. No doubt - their fans appreciate their contribution to baseball. But by refusing to grant a pension to these oldtimers who played in a segregated society - Major League Baseball is denying them an appropriate reward for their efforts. I'm trying to help these men resolve their dispute with Major League Baseball, so they can receive a small but important token for their contributions to sports history. Also throughout the era of segregation, when public facilities were segregated by law, the African American community of Miami was forbidden to use all of the areas beaches but one, Virginia Key Beach, in Biscayne Bay. Known in those days as the "Colored Only Beach", Virginia Key Beach was an important place in the lives of African American families – a place for them to gather and enjoy the pleasures of relaxation beside the ocean. The memories of this place are sweet, even mixed with the bitterness of segregation. Together with my friend and colleague, Congresswoman Carrie Meek of Miami, I have sponsored legislation that will help preserve this historic place. Our bill would require the Secretary of the Interior to study and report to Congress on the feasibility of incorporating Virginia Key Beach into the National Park System. By enacting this legislation, we can preserve its 77 acres of beach and wildlife, while honoring its past and present importance to the people of Florida. These are examples of some of the small ways in which we can honor the lives and memories of our nation's African Americans. My own state, Florida, has an especially proud history in this regard - as well as a willingness to correct past mistakes. In 1994, for example, the Florida Legislature passed, and the late Gov. Lawton Chiles signed, the Rosewood Claims Bill - which provided $2.1 million to survivors and the families of victims of the 1923 Rosewood Massacre. And last year, the Legislature enacted sweeping reforms to give every person an equal opportunity to have his or her vote counted. The legislation was aimed at correcting voting rights abuses in the presidential election. Unfortunately, a $50-billion state budget proposed by the Florida House last week left out the second of two installments of $12 million to help counties replace antiquated, punch-card voting machines. African Americans were disproportionately affected by flaws in the election system. And Florida lawmakers have made a commitment not only to that community but also to all the people of Florida to fix the system. Without this funding - they will have broken their promise. It would be appropriate at this time of recognizing the achievements of African Americans for the state House to do its duty and to keep its word – so every vote gets counted. Today - and everyday - let us celebrate African American achievement both by remembering our past and by recommitting ourselves to the current fight for social, political, and economic equality for everyone.