Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "Every great institution is the lengthened shadow of a single man." Black History Month is a time to remember and celebrate the shadows of the great men and women who came before us - Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and those who continue walking through their shadows, like President Barack Obama.
His quote stands out to me, as I reflect on this particular Black History Month, on my life and the legacies that have inspired me along the way. Growing up on a farm in the 1920s, education was the only way out of a tiny black settlement in Gloucester County, Va. We lived on a five-acre farm, where we harvested and tended the land my grandparents once worked as slaves and would later inherit the land from their former owners.
There were seven of us--all boys. We were taught to work the horses, shuck corn and milk our cow. For church on Sundays, we dressed our best with hand-me-downs that had patches sewn on by our mother. She was a member of the Missionary Society, a group in the church that would help provide clothes for other needy families. My father was a carpenter who also helped out at the church. Times were tough - especially for black families. Segregation was everywhere and the Great Depression was looming.
I read Booker T. Washington's biography and his speeches, which motivated me to leave my hometown. The only way out was through education, but I knew I couldn't become a doctor, not as a poor black boy, so I decided to become a missionary. As a missionary, I could lead and inspire others to hope for a better future like Washington had done for me.
When I was 17 years old, my father gave me a dollar and sent me on my way to Virginia Union University in Richmond, Va. By the time I arrived, I was left with 25 cents and no plan on how I would pay for school. I knocked on the back of the president's office and asked for a scholarship. He was white, so I couldn't walk through the front door. He gave me a job as a houseboy for a rich family on Chamberlayne Avenue, where I would handle all of the white boys' laundry.
At that time, I couldn't stay in a hotel nearby so I settled in the basement of a corset maker's house. I was willing to do anything to not go back to the farm. But the scholarship didn't last long enough, and after one term I was out of money. In my struggle, the shadows of the forefathers inspired me to keep pursuing a higher education.
In 1948, I enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Penn., with 11 other black men, one of which was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We were all strangers to each other and anxiously wondered if the school of mostly whites would keep us. We felt privileged to be going to a traditional seminary - more rigorous than the schools other black boys would be allowed to attend.
In an unfamiliar place, we held on tight to each other and the teachings from the Bible. We hungered for more knowledge and would stay up late at night reading and dreaming of a better life. The Book of Amos in the Old Testament was a favorite among us. Amos was a reformer who led the Israelites and preached against social injustice. We promised each other we were going to be the Amos of the New Age. What we learned in those three years in the seminary and from each other became the key to making an impact and leaving a legacy in the world.
After graduating in 1951, I moved to Baltimore and supported an early sit-in during the civil rights movement at Read's Drug Store. The separation of the races continued as we were rejected from restaurants and couldn't try on clothes at local stores. Despite all this, I saw an opportunity to lead. As a minister, I felt I had to use my voice to inspire and instill hope in my congregation. I had no right to back down, so I joined the marches and passed along Dr. King's message.
When Dr. King was shot, people were angry and lit the city on fire. I went around to help stop the riots because Dr. King wouldn't have wanted his legacy to go up in flames. I never lost faith in what he preached and fought for, I knew we would come out of these ashes stronger and ready to rebuild a better society.
When I'm asked what comes next and how this younger generation should continue to fight for justice and equality, I don't know if I have the answer they want to hear. I have noticed that the younger generation does not value the wisdom of those who came before them, as I did at their age. However, if I can pass down one thing, it would be to use this month to read the words of Booker T. Washington, Dr. King and President Obama; let their words inspire you, and educate yourself to build a better future for all of us.
Rev. Marcus Garvey Wood is a civil rights educator, advocate and pastor. He started his ministry at Providence Baptist Church in Baltimore, Md., in 1952. In 1998, he became an author after he published a recollection of his 50 years of ministry in "And Grace Will Lead Me Home..." Today, he and his wife Bessie live in a senior living community, Sunrise of Pikesville, where he continues to share his passion for education and public service with his fellow residents. In June of this year, he will celebrate his 96th birthday.