During this Black History Month, a diverse pool of Berkshire employees has come together to send out weekly internal memos honoring African Americans who have been influential in our work. This effort has inspired me, and I wanted to take a moment to share some of the highlights with our friends and clients.
Below is a handful of the profiles that Berkshire staff has written this month:
A. Philip Randolph
“Salvation for a race, nation or class must come from within. Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.” (1937)
The work for racial equality in US employment did not start with the Civil Right Act of 1964 or Executive Order 11246. A. Philip Randolph led several initiatives for change as early as the 1920s.
Philip Randolph, born in 1889, was a major influence in fighting for racial justice and equal opportunity in employment for African Americans. Some of Randolph’s accomplishments include:
- Forming the first labor union for Black workers, representing close to 10,000 black railroad employees.
- Persuading President Franklin D. Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802, barring discrimination in defense industries and the federal government during World War II.
- Persuading President Harry Truman to issue Executive Order 9981, banning racial discrimination in the armed forces.
- Helping to organize the 1963 March on Washington, during which MLK delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech
Justice Thurgood Marshall
“A child born to a Black mother in a state like Mississippi . . . has exactly the same rights as a white baby born to the wealthiest person in the United States. It’s not true, but I challenge anyone to say it is not a goal worth working for.” (1988)
Thurgood Marshall was an icon for civil rights. And born in Baltimore in 1908, we’re proud to claim him as a local hero as well!
Thurgood Marshall is most famous for becoming the first African American appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court – but his life and work is full of milestones and victories for racial justice. A few of them include:
- Receiving his law degree from Howard University, after being denied admission to University of MD Law School because he was black.
- Later successfully suing UMD Law on behalf of another black student who suffered from the same discriminatory admission practices.
- Ruling in 1954 on Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” leading to the desegregation of public schools.
- Ruling as part of the majority on Roe v. Wade, giving women constitutional protections to seek abortion as a recourse.
James Weldon Johnson
“You are young, gifted, and Black. We must begin to tell our young, there's a world waiting for you, yours is the quest that's just begun.” (1894)
James Weldon Johnson was an African American writer, educator, civil rights leader and US Ambassador. Born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1871, he earned a degree from Atlanta University and went on to teach preparatory school in Florida.
While there, he wrote his most well-known work, the poem Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, which was set to music by his younger brother. A few of James Weldon Johnson’s other contributions to Black History include:
- Becoming the first African American to sit for the Florida Bar Exam
- Supporting President Roosevelt’s winning presidential campaign, and being appointed US Consulate to Venezuela and Nicaragua
- Becoming the first African American professor of Law at New York University in 1934, and later teaching at Fisk University
- Publishing the novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
The above profiles are just a few of the heroes who have inspired our staff at Berkshire, though there are hundreds of thousands more – some lesser known and others iconic. For me, these volunteered profiles of black history figures from our staff have been a meaningful way to celebrate Black History Month. They remind us all of the importance of diversity and equality, in our workplace and in the world around us. The contributions of these black leaders have paved the way for the work that remains to be done in this country -- the systemic change we hope to be a small part of.