The history of Black History Month
Black History Month, also known as African-American History Month in America, is an annual observance and commemoration in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Its original purpose was to recall and celebrate important people and events in the history of the African diaspora.
In the US and Canada, it is celebrated annually in February. The UK's Black History Month is October.
Black History Month was originally much more modest in scope and time. It was, in fact, called “Negro History Week” beginning in February 1926. It was created by historian Carter G. Woodson and the Chicago-based Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Woodson declared that the second week of February would forever be Negro History Week. Why the second week? Because this week contained the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
The principal point of Negro History Week was to facilitate and encourage a universal and coordinated teaching of the history of black Americans in this nation-state's public schools.
The first Negro History Week was met with only a tepid response by education establishments nationwide. Indeed, only the Departments of Education of North Carolina, Delaware and West Virginia, as well as the city school administrations of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., made even lukewarm efforts to incorporate the celebration into their curricula.
That meager reaction, however, did not deter Professor Woodson. He declared that first Negro History Week to be a resounding success: He called it "one of the most fortunate steps ever taken by the association," and he and the association doubled down on plans for a repeat of the event on an annual basis.
Woodson believed that teaching black history was at once separate from yet intricately intertwined with “white history;” and that it was absolutely called for and indeed essential for both the physical and intellectual survival of black people within this nation-state: The Journal of Negro History quotes him thusly:
If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization.
By 1929, as per the Journal, all but two state departments of education observed Negro History Week. Its celebration in "every state with [a] considerable Negro population" had been made possible and a reality by means of the distribution of “official literature associated with the event."
Also, by '29, churches got into the act and began to play a significant role in the distribution of literature in association with Negro History Week. Both the mainstream white press and the burgeoning black press were also inundated with literature touting the existing of this new celebration.
Among black people, Negro History Week was enthusiastically embraced from Day 1. Black history clubs sprouted across the country like mushrooms. There was an overwhelming interest among teachers and progressive whites. Thus, Negro History Week grew exponentially throughout the following decades, with mayors across the US endorsing it as a holiday.
It was the organization called Black United Students at Kent State University in February 1969 which first proposed the expansion of Black History Week to Black History Month. Thus, the first celebration of Black History Month took place at Kent State one year later, in February 1970.
In 1976, as part of the US Bicentennial celebration, the heretofore informal expansion of Negro History Week to Black History Month was officially recognized by the US government. Indeed, it was President Gerald R. Ford who exhorted all Americans to "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history."
Black History Month was first celebrated in the UK in 1987. Its establishment there is generally attributed to the efforts of Ghanaian analyst Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, as well as the Greater London Council.
And, finally, as late as 1995, Canadian politician Jean Augustine moved Canada's House of Commons to officially recognized February as Black History Month in honor of black Canadians. But it was not until 2008 when Canadian Sen. Donald Oliver moved the Senate to officially recognize Black History Month. His motion was unanimously approved, and thus Canada now celebrates Black History Month.
Every February, Black History Month reignites debate about the continued usefulness and, yes, fairness of having a designated month dedicated to the history of one race.
Many are concerned that celebration of black history cheapens that history to only a single (and the shortest) month of recognition of the prodigious and ongoing contributions of blacks, and reduces the whole idea to one of mere hero worship.
One critic of Black History Month is the celebrated actor Morgan Freeman: "I don't want a black history month. Black history is American history."
Freeman is absolutely right, of course. Black history is American history.
What Freeman does not seem to grasp, though, is that black history has never been recognized as an integral part of American history. That is, it has never been told, viewed, researched or promulgated with equal footing, as a co-equal partner alongside white American history. For example, unless one partakes of specific college courses in black history, one would never know that:
The very first person to die for the independence of this nation-state from British colonialism was a black man, Crispus Attucks, in 1770.
Benjamin Bannecker, a black mathematician, astronomer, clockmaker, author and surveyor, first laid out the design for Washington, D.C.
Henry Blair (1807-1860) invented the first spark plug.
Leonidas Berry (1902-1995) invented the gastroscope, which allows doctors to see inside one's stomach and intestines.
Sept. 2, 1862 is the date the first blacks were allowed to actually serve in the Civil War via the Black Brigade of Cincinnati.
During the Civil War, Chicago was "home" to one of the largest prisoner-of-war camps for Confederate soldiers.
The founder of the City of Chicago was a black man -- Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, in 1772 -- four years before America declared its independence from Britain. Interestingly, LaSalle, Joliet and Marquette had all earlier come through this area where the Chicago River meets Lake Michigan. They all tried and failed to set up shop here because the Pottawatomi, Illinois, and Miami Indians ran them out. But those selfsame Indians did allow DuSable to establish a trading post (Chicago's first "business") and a settlement which quickly grew into America's second largest city and a real "world class" city, to boot. But, why DuSable and not the others, you ask? DuSable did something that just did not occur to the Frenchmen. He did something that they did not: He asked permission first.
Space does not allow for more citations of black impact on this nation-state's history. Suffice it to say, though, that there are thousands upon thousands of entries that could be made here.