In 1926, it was announced that the second week of February to be, what was then, “Negro History Week”. This week was chosen by historian, journalist, and Ph.D graduate of Harvard, Carter G. Woodson and, what is now, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), because it marked the birthdays of both the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809) and social reformer and orator, Frederick Douglass (February, 1818).
Woodson established the ASALH as a non-profit organization in Chicago on September 9, 1915, to get Black Americans into the nation’s history and dedicating it to the study and appreciation of African-American History. Later incorporated in Washington, D.C. on October 2, 1915 as the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) by Woodson and black minister and community leader, Jesse E. Moorland.
Woodson took on this initiative, because while studying, he was disturbed to find that history books largely ignored the black American population, and when blacks did figure into the picture, it was generally in ways that reflected the inferior social position they were assigned at the time. So, while participating in the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation in Chicago, in 1915, he recognized the interest and long awaiting lines of people wanting to see the exhibits of the achievements of which blacks had made since slavery and wanted to do more.
He, along with other intellectuals, civic organizations and his fraternity brothers from Omega Psi Phi, conducted outreaches and fairs across the country.
He knew their outreaches were significant, but Woodson desired greater impact. He would later tell an audience of Hampton Institute students, “We are going back to that beautiful history and it is going to inspire us to greater achievements.” Those words… it’s going to inspire us to greater achievements, are profound because when we know our history, and the achievements of those before us, despite slavery, we want to better and do more. Woodson would later send out a press release formally announcing the holiday with the hope, however, that it would, some day, eventually be eliminated when black history became fundamental to American history. However, we must face the fact that we’re still fighting for Black history to be an essential part of this nation’s history, and history in general … worldwide. But, back then, Woodson had the forethought to understand the importance of making sure Black history stayed on the minds of all by becoming essential, necessary and fundamental, with education, teaching and celebrations of all kind. He said, “If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” And so, back then Negro History Week was met with such enthusiastic response; it prompted the creation of black history clubs, an increase in interest among teachers, and interest from progressive whites. Negro History Week grew in popularity throughout the following decades, with mayors across the United States endorsing it as a holiday.
Years after Woodson created Negro History Week, and with all of it’s embraced endorsements, it wasn’t until 50 years later, and 26 years after his death, in 1976, that it was expanded to be known as we know it today, “Black History Month.” The federal government acknowledged the expansion to Black History Month by the leaders of the Black United Students at Kent State University in February of 1969. They held the first celebration the following year, in February, 1970. Then, six years later, during the bicentennial … a series of celebrations and observances during the mid-1970s that paid tribute to the historical events leading up to the creation of the United States of America as an independent republic, the expansion of Negro History Week to Black History Month was recognized by the U.S. government. There, Gerald Ford, the 38th President of the United States, spoke in regards to this, urging Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
So, we now see Black History Month as an annual observance, not only in the United States, but in Canada and the United Kingdom, for remembrance of important people and events in the history of the communities throughout the world that are descended from the historic movement of natives or inhabitants of Africa and people of African descent, predominantly to the Americas, Europe and the Middle East, among other areas around the globe. It is celebrated annually in the United States and Canada in February and the United Kingdom in October.
In the United Kingdom, Black History Month was first celebrated in 1987. This establishment of Black History Month is generally attributed to the work of Ghanaian analyst Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, as well as the Greater London Council.
In 1995, after a motion by Black female politician Jean Augustine, Canada’s House of Commons officially recognized February as Black History Month. In 2008, Black Senator Donald Oliver moved to have the Senate officially recognize Black History Month, which was unanimously approved.
Now, here we are again on the subject of the usefulness and fairness of Black History Month. It sparks an annual debate of a designated month dedicated to the history of one race. Many people hold concerns about black history being delegated to a single month and the “hero worship” of some of the historical figures often recognized. However, there’s a local Fairfax County school teacher in Virgina who recognized that students know certain figures in history, but beyond that…nothing. She said “Everyone knows about slavery. Everyone knows about the Underground Railroad, and most know about Rosa Parks. But outside of that, they don’t know a lot.” And on the other side, there’s actor and film director, Morgan Freeman, a critic of Black History Month, where he said: “I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history.” Well, those words certainly rings true for me too, but we’re not there yet. Black History hasn’t become fundamental to American history. Most people do know about the Underground Railroad and Rosa Parks, and slavery, but there’s so much more and it would be unfair to assume everyone knows the important and often neglected contributions of Black Americans. It’s festive, for sure and celebrated, but on Woodson’s dream of national attention, is it effective and by what measures? Why not teach and bring attention to the contributions of Blacks before slavery and beyond February. Black history is American history and that’s reflected, all around us, all year around, isn’t it.
I enjoy the celebration of Black History Month, but there is certainly more to be desired. We must continue to bring national attention to the contributions of black people throughout American history. Students need it and our future generation needs it. We can only improve our understanding of black history if we consciously acknowledge that there is more for us to learn about the contributions of Blacks and seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history. We’re not there, yet. Let’s keep Black History Month … it’s useful and fair.