Tuesday, February 1, 2011
The Birth of Black History Month
We have so much to be proud of during the month of February as we celebrate the legacy of Black History. This is a time for the world to know the tremendous contributions people of color have made to mankind and the world. I am blessed to have lived long enough to witness what no one living or dead ever thought was possible, the most significant historical event since the resurrection of our Lord – the election of the first African American President of these United States and the leader of the free world.
This is not withstanding all of the storied achievements made by the ghosts of the greats who blazed mighty trails. As proud as I am of the many contributions African Americans have made to this great country, and dare I say to the world, I am equally as confident that there is an abundance of history yet to be made. However, most people do not know the origins of Black History Month, so I will share that information.
February is dedicated to this proud annual observance for the remembrance of those important people and events honoring the African America Diaspora. The idea of Black History Month was conceived in Chicago during the summer of 1915. An alumnus of the University of Chicago with many friends in the city hosted a convention where Dr. Carter G. Woodson traveled from Washington DC to participate. It was a national celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation, sponsored by the State of Illinois.
Thousands of African Americans traveled from all across the country that summer to see exhibits highlighting the progress their people had made since the extermination of slavery. Awarded a doctorate at Harvard University three years earlier, Dr. Woodson joined other exhibitors with a black history display. He was so enamored with the idea that he began the process of making this exhibit an annual event, which means we owe the celebration of Black History Month, including the study of black history, to Dr. Woodson.
In 1924, his group responded with the creation of Negro History and Literature Week, which they renamed Negro Achievement Week. Their outreach was significant, but Dr. Woodson desired a greater impact. He told students at the Hampton Institute, “We are going back to that beautiful history and it is going to inspire us to greater achievements.” In 1925, he decided that the Association had to shoulder the responsibility. He felt going forward with this idea would both create and popularize knowledge about black history.
He sent out a press release announcing Negro History Week in February of 1926. Dr. Woodson chose the second week of February because it marked the birthdays of two Americans who greatly influenced the lives and social condition of African Americans: Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass. Therefore, the myth that the month of February was selected because it is the shortest month is simply not true.
Dr. Woodson also founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. What you might not know is that black history had barely begun to be studied or even documented when the tradition originated. Further, it is important to remember that blacks have been in America since August of 1619 when a Dutch man-of-war ship rode the tide into Jamestown, Virginia, and the first slaves were dragged onto its shores. However, it was not until the 20th century that African American history gained a respectable presence in the history books.
From the beginning, Dr. Woodson was overwhelmed by the response to his call. Negro History Week appeared across the country in schools and in many public forums. The expanding black middle class became participants in and consumers of black literature and culture. Black history clubs sprang up, teachers demanded materials to instruct their pupils, and progressive whites supported their efforts. They set a theme for the annual celebration providing study materials such as pictures, lessons for teachers, plays for historical performances, and posters of important dates and people.
The 1960’s had a dramatic effect on the study and celebration of black history. Before the decade was over, Negro History Week would be well on its way to becoming Black History Month. The shift to a month-long celebration began even before Dr. Woodson’s death. As early as the 1940’s, blacks in West Virginia, a state where Dr. Woodson often spoke, began to celebrate February as Negro History Month. By the late 1960’s, as young blacks on college campuses became increasingly conscious of links with Africa, Black History Month replaced Negro History Week.
Within the Association, younger intellectuals, part of the awakening, prodded Woodson’s organization to change with the times. They succeeded and in 1976, fifty years after the first celebration, the Association used its influence to institutionalize the shifts from a week to a month and from Negro history to black history. Since the mid 1970’s, every American president, Democrat and Republican, has issued proclamations endorsing the Association’s annual theme because black history is American history. The profound legacy of our past should never be forgotten and always embraced for we are merely the sum of the whole.
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