The History of Black History Month

Mahogany Staff Image

When the call first went out for blog post topics to celebrate Black History Month (also known as African-American History month), I responded that I’d like to write a “History of Black History Month” post.

I wasn’t thinking clearly.

Sure, it’d be easy to pull together a few paragraphs that give a simplified understanding of how this month-long celebration of achievements by Black Americans came to be. But isn’t that already available? Isn’t it time to move beyond the standard talking points and delve into truly understanding the significance of Black Americans as part of our nation’s history and reflect on how we can update our country’s narrative to be accurate and inclusive?

We all have a responsibility to educate ourselves about the things we do not know, examine the narratives we hold to be true and reflect on their validity.

Instead of repeating those facts again, this post challenged me (and now I’m challenging you) to expand on this information and discover the hidden histories that have been rewritten or excluded. This isn’t a reading list nor does it aim to be a one-stop shop for all things Black history.  We all have a responsibility to educate ourselves about the things we do not know, examine the narratives we hold to be true and reflect on their validity. Your local library is here to help!

It was very easy to type in “history of black history month” into Google and find a number of websites that repeat the same (important but limited) facts about Black History Month. This topic is heavy and deserves more reflection than a single blog post could ever do justice to,  especially since along with a variety of websites with similar facts about the month, a quick Google search also reveals many websites that hold the opinion that there isn’t a need for Black History Month.

That same search revealed several 2015 articles referencing a world geography textbook used in Texas public high schools with a section about immigration that stated, “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” This incorrect description printed and taught to hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens is one example of why Black History Month is necessary.

If John Hope Franklin, distinguished African-American historian, were alive today, I think he’d agree with me. 20 years ago on the 50th anniversary of his book, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, Mr. Franklin said, “My challenge was to weave into the fabric of American history enough of the presence of blacks so that the story of the United States could be told adequately and fairly…That was terribly important.” This holds true today just as it did 20, 70 and 91 years ago when the idea that became the catalyst for Black History Month was formed.

cover for The Mis-Education of the Negro

Before there was Black History Month, National Negro Week was started in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson. The foundation for the week (and later month-long celebration) was shaped a decade earlier in 1915 when Mr. Woodson and Jesse E. Moorland, prominent minister and civic leader, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by Black Americans and other peoples of African descent. Perhaps you’ve read of one Mr. Woodson’s published works,  The Mis-education of the Negro?

Over the next five decades, as respite from Jim Crow laws wasn’t an option, through the Great Depression, World War II and the Civil Rights movement, individuals and organizations continued to celebrate and recognize the critical roles Black Americans have in our collective U.S. history. National Negro Week transitioned into Black History Month across the country, gaining popularity on college campuses, thanks in part to the rise of Freedom Schools. Freedom Schools didn’t pop up out of nowhere; they were part of many long-term efforts by community-based and national movements to transform the systematic racial and socio-economic struggles faced in local communities and across the country. Check out Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Movements in America to learn more about the African-American freedom struggle. In 1976, President Gerald Ford declared Black History Month a national observance.

Although our nation had observed Black History month for more than 30 years by the time I was in grade school, it wasn’t until I was in college that I realized how limited the histories were. I learned about Rosa Parks but not Claudette Colvin. I knew medical pioneers like Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, and J. Marion Sims, the “father of modern gynecology” but nothing of Sims’ history of performing medical experiments on enslaved women and children. I’d never heard of Onesimus, an African slave who was gifted to Cotton Mather by his congregation in 1706 and introduced the practice of inoculation to the United States. Last year, as Hillary Clinton ran for presidential office, it struck me how many people did not know that Shirley Chisholm was not only the first black woman congresswoman, but also the first black woman to run for president for a major political party. These are overly simplified examples as the rich and complex history of Black Americans that cannot be minimized to a few short paragraphs or the mention of a few names.

Last week I heard Keli Goff, author and writer for The Daily Beast, talk about Black History Month and the missing history that confirms the need for a Black History Month:

“I also want to congratulate Imelme Umana who recently became the first black female president in the history of Harvard Law Review… I also want to give a shout out to those who believe we don’t need Black History Month. I’m willing to make a deal. I’ll support getting rid of Black History Month if you support authorizing the Department of Ed to recall every history text book so they can be re-written to include Black history.  For instance, most people didn’t know black women were crucial to NASA’s early years. At least they didn’t know until the film Hidden Figures. And until 10 years ago, it wasn’t known that Thomas Jefferson produced children with a slave he raped, beginning at the age of 14. So until our books are all up to date, I will continue supporting Black History month.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. I encourage you to do some self-discovery in your local library to learn for yourself about the Black History that is American History but just hasn’t been included in our textbooks, yet. The African American Experience: The American Mosaic database is a good place to start.

-Mahogany

Black women in the reconstruction-era South

Learn more about the African American Experience

Explore Black History

Mahogany works at CLP – Main as the Manager of Major Gifts and Planned Giving for CLP. When she isn’t helping people invest in their community through the Library, you can find her striking up conversations with strangers, obsessively snuggling her three-legged dog, listening to political podcasts or daydreaming about life as a Golden Girl or Jessica Fletcher’s sidekick.

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