The last thing I expected on the final day of the Organization of Historians annual meeting in D.C. was to well up over a chicken something at the Dupont Circle Hilton. That was before Allida Black stepped to the podium to talk about her life's mission of heading The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at George Washington University. Roosevelt dedicated her life to the fight for democracy and human rights and the project named for her continues that legacy by developing young minds. Black already had me in the palm of her hands while making Roosevelt's case that democracy may fade or grow based on the job we do educating students.
Then the self-described "gleeful agnostic" read Roosevelt's war-time prayer.
Dear Lord, Lest I continue my complacent way, help me to remember that somewhere, somehow out there a man died for me today. As long as there be war, I must then ask and answer am I worth dying for?
A tear sprang from my right eye and I gasped for air.
I've never heard a more beautiful answer for why we should study history and appreciate what our predecessors have done for us. Truth be told, I didn't know anything about Eleanor Roosevelt before today as she's well outside my expertise -- the American Revolution. I certainly didn't know that Roosevelt lead the effort to create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that set the standard for what all human beings are entitled to. Black, though, helped me make connections.
"You can not talk about the Declaration of Human Rights without talking about the Declaration of Independence," she said, every sentence of her remarks filled with intellect and compassion. I can easily imagine how fired up students get when she teaches them how to examine the facts of history "critically but with respect."
I wasn't the only one affected by Black's words.
"I felt a strong connection to what she was saying," said Lauren Vanderpluym, a young teacher at Walter Payton College Prep in Chicago. "Eleanor is one of my heroes. Hearing some of Allida's stories about her successes through the Eleanor project is empowering."
After the luncheon, I thanked Black for her remarks. I tapped my heart and told her it was the most inspiring luncheon I have attended in my career.
The next time my friends ask me why studying history is so important to me, I'll direct them to Eleanor Roosevelt and Allida Black.
Read More From The OAH Meeting:
Part 1: Historians descend on D.C.
Part 2: Historian heroes in D.C.