How much do you know about Charles Hamilton Houston? Or Zora Neale Hurston?
Be honest. No Googling.
That’s exactly why we need Black History Month. ServiceNow is hosting many internal events and learning opportunities to raise awareness and create much-needed dialogue that will continue all year long.
In the U.S., February is an opportunity for everyone to learn about Black historical figures, heroes, and trailblazers. The folks who have been underrepresented— or ignored—by traditional history books.
For ServiceNow employees Donnie and Merle, Black History isn’t a month, it’s every day. They share with us two inspirational Black figures who deserve their spotlight in history.
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A little lesson in history
Charles Hamilton Houston (1895-1950) was a lawyer and educator who devoted his life to fight for racial equality by demolishing segregation. Born in Washington, D.C., Houston graduated as valedictorian from Amherst College at the age of 20. After college, he taught at Howard University before serving as an officer in the U.S. Army in World War I.
During his time in the military, he suffered extreme racial discrimination. So, after the war, Houston enrolled in Harvard Law School. His goal: Dismantle Jim Crow laws.
Donnie Hamlett, senior technical curriculum developer, says Houston was vital to American history and a personal role model. Not just for what he did for the Black community but for all groups. Oppression hurts everyone.
“Those racial segregation laws he fought to overturn were extended to deny other groups’ rights and privileges. From the LGBTQ+ community to Asians and Pacific Islanders,” he says. “Houston’s work was critical in allowing the United States to deliver the ‘American Dream’ that’s defined in the Constitution to every citizen.”
The genius of his tactics, Donnie says, was that Houston “didn’t just go out and speak to the public, he created a system that would produce more leaders like himself,” Donnie says. “It was no longer just him. He had an army of lawyers to fight the fight in court.”
In fact, among his protégés was a young Thurgood Marshall, who went on to serve as associate justice of the Supreme Court.
Merle Spencer, who joined our customer outcomes team earlier this year, is inspired by the life and work of pioneering author Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960). Her greatest work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was published in 1937. However, Hurston—who wrote more than 50 short stories—was also an anthropologist and filmmaker.
Born in Notasulga, Alabama, she moved to Eatonville, Florida, at the age of three. She attended Barnard College and Columbia University before becoming a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance.
“Hurston’s works are important because they give a deeply profound look into the lives of Black people, particularly from a woman’s perspective, in the deep South in the 1920s-30s,” says Merle. “Their lives were not glamorous. But the way she wrote about them made you feel like they were glamorous.”
Merle adds that even though Hurston gained great notoriety after publishing Their Eyes Were Watching God—which was critically acclaimed—she made less than $1,000 for writing the book. Sadly, she died in poverty in 1960.
Hurston’s books continue to hold a special place in Merle’s heart. “It’s the characters, the dialect, the language they use,” she says. “It reminds me of listening to my parents and grandparents. I heard similar stories from them about picking cotton and doing other labor. It definitely brings me back to my childhood.”
Drawing inspiration from the past
Hurston didn’t graduate from high school until the age of 26. She became a college graduate before the age of 30 and then befriended many Black icons of the day, such as Langston Hughes and Ethel Waters.
“The tenacity and moxie that she had is something that I carry with me today,” Merle says. “I'm like, if she can do it, I can do it.”
Donnie draws similar inspiration from Houston. “I didn't get a real appreciation for everything he did until I was in my 40s,” he says. “Now, every time I think about Charles Hamilton Houston, I'm nearly brought to tears. Just knowing he died from something he believed in.”
Houston had a heart condition and had already suffered a heart attack when he began preparing for what would become the landmark Brown v. Board of Education. Houston died three years before the decision.
Applying lessons for today
Reflecting on Houston’s life and legacy, Donnie says the most important lesson he’s learned is having hope.
“You imagine how daunting Jim Crow must have looked to him,” Donnie says. “This was a single man who was going to take on all the southern states and challenge their very lifeblood. He taught us that if something is wrong, it’s never too late to challenge it. Never too big to conquer. We must have a hope and belief that we can solve the problem.”
Merle says Hurston has taught her the art of everyday empathy. This stems from one of Hurston’s most-famous quotes: “Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
“This quote struck me from the first time I read it,” Merle says. “I have two daughters. I’ve always told them, ‘If you experience discrimination, remember, it’s not you—it’s them. It's not your problem—it’s their problem.’ We should be open and empathetic. Strive to be our authentic self. Be openminded and consider what others have endured.”
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