Devin McCourty remembers growing up and reading about historical Black figures who fought in the United States' civil rights movement, paving a path to prosperity for generations to come.
During Black History Month, those individuals are celebrated for their contributions to society. To build a good future you must understand the past, but doing so is more difficult when so many achievements and advancements of a culture are lost as a result of colonization, slavery and prejudice.
That's why for McCourty and teammates Matthew Slater and Deatrich Wise Jr., honoring Black History Month is about preservation of the past through education and good role models.
"I think right away when you think of Black History Month you think about coming up at school – and of the Martin Luther Kings, the Harriet Tubmans, the Malcolm Xs – and and I think February is a special time to talk about these people to not only acknowledge the past of what African Americans have gone through, but to also celebrate," McCourty said.
"Celebrate the ones who have advanced and did great things -- Madam C. J. Walker -- people who went out there in their community and did great things and they don't often get talked about."
They consider educators to have an important role here.
"I have been inspired by authors and scholars like Ivan Van Sertima, Chancellor Williams, W. E. B. DuBois and Cornel West, as their work has provided a perspective and intellect on our culture," Wise said.
These famous sociologists, philosophers, historians and activists are renowned for their work with race and were immensely influential in the advancement of Black education.
But it was the teachers who put this into practice and taught McCourty and Wise about Black history who were crucial in helping them apply the lessons of these celebrated Black individuals. For Slater, both of his parents made these ideas more than an abstract by setting good examples.
"Black history is a part of American history, and as Americans, I think that we can learn so much from our history, what we've been and where we're headed are important, and that link is important," Slater said.
"I think about the Black Americans and Black people that have had the biggest impact on my life and I think about my parents. My mother and father were raised in the segregated south in Mississippi in the 60s and they had to overcome so much to get to where they are today -- to get out and get an opportunity and to raise my brother David and I the way that they did. So when I think about Black heroes I was fortunate enough to grow up in the house with two of the best that I know."
Wise saw his father, Deatrich Wise Sr., motivate kids through teaching and coaching after his own football career. Now, the Patriots defensive end gives back with work at the Mattapan Teen Center to pass on the tools he was given to help motivate him.
McCourty and twin brother Jason McCourty had similar role models at their own school.
"I want to talk about the opportunity I had as a student growing up," McCourty said.
"For me, you think of Black History Month, among the first people who stick out to me are the teachers that I had. I think of Mrs. Roberts, Mrs. Barnes who (twin brother Jason McCourty) had, Mr. Bennet – all teachers from elementary to middle school – were all teachers who I got to see who are Black, who look like me, and they encouraged me. They motivated me. They pushed me hard. And when I got to look at them, I got to say, 'Man, that's something I could do at some point in my life.'"
Instead of teaching, he ended up getting drafted in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft and going on to play 12 successful seasons in the league so far with New England. But those mentors helped give him the framework to build off.
"Those teachers gave me a vision of something I didn't see right outside my window," McCourty said.
McCourty now does the same for the community he's called home for over a decade, being an example of positivity and hard work. In June of 2021, he was honored for his philanthropy with Boston Uncornered – an organization that equips gang-involved and at-risk youth to become leaders in their community and helps them graduate from college.
There's more work to be done, though, and not just during the month of February.
"What we lack in our country to only celebrate the achievements of Black people in one month and not to go out there and teach not just Black students and minority students -- but to teach all students -- the impact that Black people have had on our country. And I think that's one thing that has been talked about," McCourty said.
The work of Dr. Ivan Van Sertima discussed that higher learning was the preserve of elites in the center of civilizations, and W. E. B. Du Bois emphasized the importance of a higher education in liberal arts to help Black people learn what they're capable of doing.
For McCourty, this history must be protected.
"We see in some states they block even talking about some of these great achievements and the history of black people in our country and I think that's something that has to change," McCourty said.
"Black history should be talked about and spoken about all year. It should be a part of curriculum. So hopefully as we celebrate Black History Month we also understand how much further we need to go."
The Patriots Foundation is honored to work with Reconstructions, an organization dedicated to educating people of all ages on Black history, culture, contributions and excellence. To learn more about how you can educate yourself and celebrate Black history, visit: reconstruction.us