Our History Is a Source of Wealth We Can’t Afford to Lose

One of the most significant moments of our annual Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Summit, in Houston for 2017, will be the presentation of our highest recognition of black entrepreneurship, the A.G. Gaston Lifetime Achievement Award. This year, our A.G. Gaston Award honoree is Hank Aaron, who established a sterling record of business achievement, including becoming one of the nation’s top auto dealers, earning Black Enterprise Auto Dealer of the Year honors in 2004.

Now, I’m sure many of you understand the full weight and significance of this award and what it stands for, as well as the major contributions of the person receiving it. Unfortunately, far too many of you are asking, “Who is A.G. Gaston?” Or even worse, “Who is Hank Aaron?”

It saddens and alarms me that so many people—and especially young people—seemingly embrace ignorance of history as a badge of honor. They tragically, mistakenly believe that if it didn’t happen in their lifetimes, it’s not worth knowing. It’s a confounding paradox: In an age where we have easy access, thanks to innovations such as Google and Wikipedia, to near limitless amounts of information, we are increasingly disinclined to acquire knowledge and wisdom.

Our lack of appreciation for history not only threatens to undermine the gains and progress of the very events and people we deem worthy of our attention, but places in jeopardy the very survival of our people. As a result, we too often forfeit the inspirational examples that can drive us forward to greater success, while dismissing the harsh lessons of adversity that previous generations learned so that we could be spared the suffering they endured to acquire that knowledge.

Just in case you didn’t know: Hank Aaron made history when he broke Babe Ruth’s Major League Baseball home run record—enduring racist hate mail and death threats along the way—with his 715th career home run. As you might expect, Aaron—who hit 755 homers before retiring from baseball—is a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, inducted in 1982. Aaron’s inspiration as a young athlete aspiring to greatness was another baseball player you might remember: the legendary Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947.

Just as the history made by Robinson was a critical motivator to greatness for Aaron, Arthur G. Gaston was a personal role model and inspiration for generations of black entrepreneurs who followed him, including me. Gaston built a multibillion-dollar business empire including Booker T. Washington Insurance Co., in racially segregated, Jim Crow Birmingham, Alabama, and was a major influencer and financier of the civil rights movement led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Yet, too few people, and certainly too few young people, have any idea of who Gaston is and why he is important. The same is too often true when it comes to their knowledge of historymakers like John H. Johnson, Madam C.J. Walker, Percy Sutton, Reginald F. Lewis, and others. To somehow believe you’ve earned your current position or obtained your current wealth solely based on the fact you’re better than the current competition is both misguided and arrogant. Make no mistake … we stand on the shoulders of those who sacrificed to make all our gains possible.

Therefore, it is critical that we know our history and the stories of those who blazed a trail for us, and that we pass that knowledge on to future generations. I am encouraged by efforts such as Because of Them We Can founder Eunique Jones’ campaign to connect and educate young people to the heroes who paved the way for our success. And we have the amazing work of Julieanna Richardson, founder of The HistoryMakers, the nation’s largest African American oral history collection.

However, we have to do more, and we have to do better. Our rich history represents an abundant source of inspiration and knowledge, resources that are key to our success and that of future generations. It is a source of wealth that we cannot afford to lose.