Bennie J. McRae, Jr. shares his passion for black history by creating a web site.
Copyright 1997. Dayton Daily News. Posted by permission.
Nearly 50 years ago, when Bennie J. McRae, Jr. was a high school student in Selma, Ala., history teacher John Shields would close the textbook, sit on the edge of his desk and start telling stories about black history - stories his students would never find in their texts.
"If they'd have known he was doing this, he probably would have gotten fired," said McRae, recalling the environment of racial oppression dominating the South at mid-century. "Because there was no intent to teach anyone about things like that."
Shields may not have known it at the time, but his departure from the curriculum whet McRae's appetite for black history in a way that continues to grow today, touching others in the United States and elsewhere.
McRae, now 64 and a longtime Trotwood resident, is the founder of Lest We Forget, a World Wide Web Internet site. McRae's site, begun a little over a year ago, focuses on the history and culture of black Americans and their contributions to the development and growth of the nation.
A retired employee of the Federal Aviation Administration, McRae doesn't have much use for the annual observance of Black History Month, which continues throughout February. Why?
"Because I feel that black history should be discussed and taught year-round, not just in one month," McRae said. McRae's web site zeroes in on black history from 1750 to 1950, which McRae believes has been sadly neglected.
"There are a lot of people, especially young people, who think that there is no history related to black folks in this country beyond Martin Luther King and Malcolm X," McRae laments.
"Now I'm not putting down Dr. King, but they need to know about all of these other heroes, and the contributions that were made by blacks for over 200 years," McRae said. "And all of that's missing."
Well, not any more - not of you know where to look on the World Wide Web. Type in the address for Lest We Forget (www.coax.net/people/lwf). Starting from two dozen links on the home page, visitors can delve further into topics such as slavery, the Underground Railroad, military service by black troops in the Civil War, the settlement of the Western frontier and many others.
For McRae, who receives no money for his work on the web site, it is a labor of love. He notes he's a researcher, not a historian.
"I do the digging and I do the presenting," McRae said. "I'm obligated to present facts. I get my information from original documents and from well-researched documents, and we get contributing articles from people who have done their homework."
The web site is an offshoot of another project, a quarterly newsletter on black history, also called Lest We Forget. McRae began publishing the newsletter in 1993, and now has about 200 subscribers.
Reaction to the Internet home page continues to roll in from across the United States, and also from Canada and Australia.
McRae often spends a good chunk of his morning responding to e-mail sparked by the web site, correspondence from teachers and students at the collegiate and high school level looking for additional information or resources.
On the down side, McRae regrets that he's gotten very little reaction from people in the Dayton area, nor has he received many contacts from predominantly black institutions.
"It is very odd," McRae said. I find most blacks don't have much interest in history during that (19th century) period. Most of the people who send me the messages and are very supportive - I hate to say it - They're white people!"
McRae's wife, Virgie, backs his work on Lest We Forget, even though McRae sometimes spends the better part of the day nestled in a cluttered room that serves as his computer center, library and office.
"She's supportive. The only thing is, she wants me to clean up that nasty room," McRae said. "I've even got some of my clothes down there."
McRae, whose son Bennie J. McRae III is an Army captain based in Germany, plans to continue improving his web site, which emphasizes text over graphics.
During the next year, for instance, he wants to expand links dealing with black troops in the Civil War, as well as other blacks involved in the war effort.
"I'm doing some research now on (black) civilians that supported the Union army during the Civil War - estimates run as high as 200,000 to 300,000," McRae said, referring to civilians employed by the army.
"I want to destroy this myth that a lot of people have that blacks, during the Civil War, sat around and did nothing under the shade tree, while white men fought and died for their freedom. That was true - a lot of white men did die - but blacks also died. They fought, once they were given the chance, and they fought hard, for the freedom of their fellow men and women.
"Once we get our history in perspective in this country and get everybody on board as to the things that actually happened, I think we'll all be better off," McRae said.
A black history "sampler," accessible via the Lest We Forget web site at www.coax.net/people/lwf on the World Wide Web: