Nearly all I know about the value of diversity I learned in Nebraska.
Yes, like our university president, I am a son of the “Cornhusker State.” But I was born and raised in a very different part of Nebraska than he was. I grew up in inner-city Omaha, the state’s largest city, my family having arrived there as part of the Great Migration. Don’t know what the Great Migration was? That’s why we need Black history.
The Great Migration was one of the largest movements of people in the history of the United States. Between 1910 and 1970, six million African Americans moved out of the South and to the Northeast, Midwest and West. They moved to find opportunity, like my family did, and they moved to escape the violence of Jim Crow and the segregated South. My father landed a job in one of the meat-packing factories in Omaha, and our family story began.
My journey took me through school to begin a career as a television news reporter who covered stories all over the state. When I left Lincoln, where I was based, and went into rural Nebraska, rarely did the people I encounter, and whose stories I told, look like me. But as a journalist, that mattered little to me. Their stories were the ones I was putting on the air.
Here’s what I learned there, and what I taught for years: Every human has a story, and every story has value.
I heard and told stories from one end of the state to the other in those days. From families struggling to keep their farms through the foreclosure crisis of the 1980s, to ranchers raising cattle in the west, worried about the depletion of the groundwater beneath their feet. How they came to be where they were was vitally important. Their history provided context that helped me understand the present. I learned that facts plus context equals truth.
That equation holds no matter where you come from, and it helps you realize the value of every human story. And that’s important to remember in an era when some are willing to adopt the deeply insulting notion that Black history is somehow of lesser value.
Black history classes are nothing new. I’m pretty old, and I took one in high school, in the ’70s. Here’s what it taught me: I am descended from a people who never gave up the struggle to survive, from the moment they were kidnapped and brought to this continent in chains. They never gave up the fight to keep their families together, to build connection and community, and most importantly, to make a life in a country that started by considering them three-fifths of a person.
Their story is a story of a people who put epic amounts of blood and sweat equity into the U.S., and never gave up the struggle to get this country to live up to the promise of its founding documents. And they did it out of love — for each other, for the homeland they lost, and yes, for the land to which they had contributed so much.
It says something about the promise of America that so many of those who are descended from Africa, through generations of slavery, Jim Crow, terrorism and discrimination, still believe in it. It’s a part of the story of this country, one of the many ways we understand what it is to be an American. It is why Black history is American history — it’s part of the context that helps get us to the truth of who we all are now.
Hub Brown is the UF College of Journalism and Communications dean.