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The annual celebration known as Black History Month began as “Negro History Week” in 1926. Historian Carter G. Woodson picked the timing for this commemorative week to coincide with the birthdates of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two figures who were greatly respected among African Americans in the early 20th century.

Today, Black History Month is recognized in schools and by some corporations. Congregations, especially in the West, also need to pay close attention to Black History Month – because Black history is church history.

Contemporary conversations about race, justice and equity lack substance when we do not know and appreciate history. Likewise, our appreciation for the Christian tradition requires us to have a complete vision of our past.

The roots of Black history in Christianity extend well past 1619, when the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. In Acts 8, Philip evangelized an Ethiopian eunuch, who carried the gospel back to Ethiopia. In Mark 15:21, Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry Jesus’ cross. Cyrene was a city in eastern Libya, in north Africa. Moses’s wife Zipporah, according to Numbers 12, was from Cush, an ancient name for Africa.

These are just a few of the biblical stories that highlight the gift of Black history – and early church historians agree that Augustine and Tertullian were also people of African descent, even though no one knows how they looked.

As we celebrate Black History Month, how might our thinking be informed if our historical narratives – along with the images in our Bibles and in our churches – more accurately reflected the contributions of a multicultural “cloud of witnesses”?

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Before you go…

Jesus told us that the truth will make us free. White and Black churches alike are imprisoned by colonialist thinking that perpetuates the marginalization of non-white people.

I’ll admit it’s a modest proposal, but highlighting the African presence in the Bible and the contributions of African Americans in church history can make room for us to revisit long-held but historically inaccurate beliefs. Perhaps this month is an opportunity to read the Bible with fresh eyes and celebrate the gift of Black history.

Feel free to email me and the Alban Weekly team at alban@duke.edu. Keep leading with courage!

Prince Rivers

Editor, Alban at Duke Divinity