History is written in plain text and peppered with bold names of individuals who performed notable actions and possessed powerful ideas. It is common for us to celebrate the lives of ideological leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. or study the work of revolutionary thinkers such as George Orwell and Charles Darwin. Yet, in this quest to remember our past, we often fail to acknowledge those who have made small but significant contributions to a greater story that has perversely forgotten them.
Ambassador Edward Perkins
Ambassador Perkins in 2007. Photo by Lovelypueblo.
During the 1980s, South Africa’s apartheid system made waves around the world, rattling the public consciousness with its distressing story of injustice and inequality. The United States suffered a similar social disease for centuries but had made great strides to overcome it. Thus, it was by no small measure that Edward Perkins, an African American who’d grown up in the segregated cotton fields of Louisiana, would become the first black U.S. ambassador to South Africa.
Perkins’ appointment was so controversial that he worried about public opinion within the black community at home and abroad—particularly the stigma that he’d become an unlikely face for the Reagan administration, deemed racist by black leaders such as Reverend Jesse Jackson. When Perkins arrived on the troubled continent he was met with opposition from South Africa’s president, P.W. Botha. Still, Perkins fulfilled his diplomatic duties, meeting with everyone he could, and visiting South Africa’s poor black townships, all while under the subversive gaze of the government’s security. Perkins would later become the first black director general of U.S. foreign services.
Cuban Health Workers
A scene of devastation after the earthquakes in Haiti in January 2010.
In recent years, the Republic of Haiti has garnered widespread sympathy and aid in the wake of a devastating earthquake that crippled the country in early 2010 more so than any spell of bad governance or poverty could. The global response to Haiti’s needs were prompt, yet much of the immediate help wounded Haitians received came at the hands of Cuban health professionals who’d already been stationed in the country for nearly a decade. They were sent on medical missions as part of Fidel Castro’s ongoing international doctor diplomacy to serve the poor while polishing Cuba’s image abroad. In a country littered with substandard hospitals, where millions of people lack basic health care, Haiti’s population benefited greatly from the small but diligent group of Cuban health workers who set up their clinics to treat earthquake-wounded civilians.
September 11, 2001 has become one of the most important days in American history due to the sheer bravery of our country’s first responders to the tragic collapse of the Twin Towers in New York City. Yet, perhaps no story is more valiant than that of Betty Ong, a head flight attendant of 14 years who called American Airlines reservation agents to report a hijacking aboard Flight 11. It was the first indication anyone would receive of the impending terrorist act against the U.S. Her call eventually led to the shutdown of all flights nationwide. The recorded phone conversation between Betty and American Airlines revealed a woman who was calm and professional during what would be the last few minutes of her life and those of everyone aboard the plane. She maintained a clear and coherent manner throughout her emergency call, providing a detailed account of the hijacking until the very moment her plane collided with one of the Twin Towers. Today, Betty Ong is remembered through the Betty Ann Ong Foundation.
Through resolution and conviction, the aforementioned individuals have shaped history in a way that continues to serve the present moment. History may not always acknowledge their accomplishments or uncommon grace under fire, yet we can all benefit from a study of their extraordinary work and character.
Written by: Ugonna Igweatu