Black History Month, each February, generally is thought of as a time to recognize the contributions of African-Americans. But it sometimes makes me wonder what might have been.
Typically, hard-nosed racial bigots aren't very bright. A story told by the Rev. Darrell Cummings, pastor of Bethlehem Temple in Wheeling, illustrates the point.
Part of a Black History Month presentation Cummings made last week at Madison Elementary School involved a black inventor, Garrett Morgan, of Cleveland. Among his gadgets was a revolutionary device, invented around 1912, to help firefighters cope with smoke and deadly gases.
Morgan himself used the safety hood to rescue some men trapped in a tunnel under Lake Erie after an explosion in 1916.
But here's the thing: Some - perhaps many - white people were reluctant to buy and use the safety hood because it had been invented by a black man. At times, Morgan hired white men to promote the hood. Sometimes, he even masqueraded as an American Indian, "Big Chief Mason," to demonstrate the device.
How many white men lost their lives in fires because their bigotry prevented them from trusting Morgan's device?
Wartime provides even better examples of the phenomenon. When President Abraham Lincoln decided to recruit black solders for the Union Army during the Civil War, there was quite a bit of resistance. Some white soldiers threatened to throw down their weapons and go home if forced to fight side-by-side with black troops.
Only when confronted with the argument that every life-threatening charge made by a black regiment was one that didn't have to be made by white soldiers did the whites begin to see the wisdom of Lincoln's plan.
Incredibly, the same thing happened in subsequent wars. At the beginning of World War II, black sailors were pretty much relegated to mess hall duty. Black fighter pilots were unknown.
That changed, of course, as African-American heroes took their places beside their white comrades in arms.
What might have been different in history, had bigotry not kept blacks from being full partners in facing the challenges, large and small, that Americans have had to overcome? Bigotry certainly is wrong. Clearly, it's also stupid.
Myer can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.