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Black History Month billboards salute African Americans and their seminal achievements

She stares down from a digital billboard looming over the freeway, a youthful woman wearing a white nurse’s cap from the 1880s.

Who is she?

Huge white letters on the black background answer that, telling curious zooming motorists or slower moving pedestrians on a nearby overpass that her name was Mary Eliza Mahoney. And, beneath that, the message explains why Mahoney is being featured on this digital sign along the 57 Freeway in Placentia, one of dozens like it along roads in Southern California and around the country.

“First African American Nurse.”

Mahoney, who earned her professional nursing license in 1879 at the age of 34, is among a rotation of Black historical figures being promoted by Lamar Advertising Co. during February, Black History Month. Most of the people featured are Black “firsts,” meaning they achieved a milestone in the face of segregation and discrimination.



This is the first year that Lamar Advertising has marked Black History Month with such billboards. Public service campaigns featuring notable Black Americans in previous years were limited to a few isolated markets, said Allie McAlpin, communications director for Lamar, which is headquartered in Baton Rouge, La.

Asked if the movement for social justice and racial equity that galvanized the country last summer, following the police killing of George Floyd, prompted this year’s Black History campaign, McAlpin said there was no political impetus behind the company’s decisionmaking.

“We just wanted to honor people who were firsts in their fields but less well known,” she said.

The goal, McAlpin added, is simple: “To inform and inspire.”

The other five people being honored are: educator and statesman Booker T. Washington, track and field star John Baxter Taylor Jr., poet Gwendolyn Brooks, astronaut Guion “Guy” Bluford Jr., and thespian Juanita Hall.

Jason Chambers, a Black historian and a professor of advertising at the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois, sees value and potential risk in Lamar’s Black History Month salute.

For Black youth, just seeing these names and faces on billboards as big as 672-square-feet can be a source of pride, Chambers said. Such acknowledgements mattered to Chambers when he was growing up in the 1970s.

“I understand and appreciate what they’re doing,” said Chambers, who has not seen the billboards in person.

There are places in this country where Black faces remain rare, and where there is a complete lack of awareness, he added.

But Chambers noted that in presenting brief, basic knowledge on only six people, Lamar could be opening itself up to critiques and scrutiny of its motives.

Still, Chambers said, consumers will likely read the Black History Month spots as “your heart’s in the right place.”

Who they are

McAlpin, who is white, said the process of culling through “tons of people” who could be highlighted was educational.

“I knew the name Booker T. Washington. But I really didn’t know these other names before.”

Some names will likely sound more familiar to the general public.

Perhaps the best known figure from the past is Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute (now known as Tuskegee University) in Alabama. Washington was born into slavery and rose to become the major Black figure of his time as America turned the corner into the 20th Century. He became the first Black man invited to dine at the White House, joining  President Theodore Roosevelt and his family in 1901, considered a shocking occurrence at a time when Jim Crow laws ruled the South.

The Lamar billboards salute Washington as the “First African American on a U.S. Postage Stamp.” He was awarded that honor in April 1940.

Chambers said he cringed upon learning that particular distinction was chosen to highlight someone as pivotal as Washington, who was highly accomplished but controversial for his more conservative approach to achieving equality for his race in comparison to his contemporary, sociologist and Pan-Africanist W.E.B. Du Bois, who co-founded the NAACP.

As a historian, Chambers said, “you always want to see a fuller treatment of them.”

What you do learn from the billboards about the other notables: Taylor Jr. was the first African American to win an Olympic Gold medal. A Bleacher Report story calls Taylor, who was a member of the gold medal U.S. men’s medley relay team in the 1908 London Summer Olympics, “the forgotten Olympian.”

Hall won a Tony Award, the first Black stage actor to do so, for her role as Bloody Mary in the 1949 production of “South Pacific.” She was named Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Brooks, the poet, won the Pulitzer Prize, also in 1949, for her compilation “Annie Allen.” She also achieved another first for a Black woman when she was named the official poetry consultant to the Library of Congress.

The only one of the six honorees who is still living is NASA spaceman and engineer Bluford, now 78.  He was the first Black astronaut in space, aboard the Challenger STS-8 mission on August 30, 1983. He entered the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2010.

McAlpin thinks the inclusion of nurse Mahoney is appropos for this moment, in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

“The first African American nurse, that’s pretty cool just because health care is so top of mind right now.”

Where to see them

While the names and images appear on the billboards only for six to eight seconds each as they rotate — with other ads or PSA’s mixed in, depending on the location — the Lamar footprint allows for a lot of exposure over all 28 days of February.

On its website, Lamar lays claim to owning the largest network of digital billboards in the United States. The Black History Month spots appear on more than 700 digital billboards in 74 markets, a number that continues to grow. McAlpin said the overall value of the space dedicated to Black History Month is close to $2 million, with availability of open ad spaces dictating the locations.

In Southern California, the San Bernardino-Riverside county market has the most Black History billboards, with about 30 signs along the 10, 15, 60, 91, 210 and 215 freeways, and on Foothill Boulevard (the old Route 66) in Rancho Cucamonga. In the Los Angeles area, signs are up on the 91 Freeway, west of Lakewood Boulevard, and along the northbound 5 Freeway near Slauson Avenue. The three sites in Orange County are clustered between Chapman Avenue and the 91.

Rival company Clear Channel Outdoor also is marking Black History Month by displaying quotes from Black leaders and barrier breakers on its digital network. Both Lamar and Clear Channel also include the messaging on their social media outlets.

There could end up being more of the Lamar Advertising Black History Month billboard spots around the country before February ends. Lamar sales offices are adding sites each day as enthusiasm grows, McAlpin said.

Chambers wishes Lamar Advertising had found a way to squeeze in website links to help steer people to places where they could learn more about the six high achievers and maybe reached further afield in the professions, such as saluting Gordon Parks as the first Black photographer to have his work published in Time magazine.

But even though motorists might speed by, Chambers believes the spots can leave a positive impression. Billboards remain highly effective in catching someone’s attention.

“You’re used to looking up to see what’s happening.”

Source: Orange County Register

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