The history of Black History Month
By Patricia Patnode
African American History Month, or Black History Month, originated in 1926 and was originally called “Negro History Week,” started by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who is often called “the father of black history.” The second week of February was chosen because President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is on the 12th and Frederick Douglass’s birth is on the 14th. Women had just gained the right to vote a few years earlier than 1926 , but Black-Americans remained unconstitutionally segregated.
Some of the most influential curators of the civil rights movement knew that segregation was philosophically and morally unsound and had faith that if given the correct information, people would choose fairness over racism and discrimination. They were fighting for the soul of the nation and the weapon of choice was education. In the 1920’s, The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History negotiated with public school administrations in certain states to incorporate the history week into their curriculum.
Black History Week was implemented annually and caused a motivational wave in black communities around their rich, historical legacy. Black History clubs for teens and young people formed out of churches and schools. In 1970, Black History Month was first celebrated. Five years later Black History Month was widely celebrated across the nation.
There has been some push back against the idea of Black History Month. Some feel that designating a month for Black History “otherizies” Black-Americans and gives the nation an excuse to ignore the history the rest of the year. Actor and activist, Morgan Freeman, has expressed in many interviews that Black History Month is unnecessary and should be phased out.
This type of criticism of Black History Month is similar to the criticism of Valentine’s Day. People ask, “why don’t you treat your partner as if everyday is Valentine’s Day?” The sentiment is that you should be equally as kind to people everyday of the year. This is functionally the same as Freeman’s point that Black History should be taught everyday.
Valentine’s Day critics are somewhat right, that love shouldn’t be reserved for one day of the year. Freeman also makes a compelling point that Black History in America and “American History,” are identical terms, not separate.
Black History is “American History,” like the woman’s suffrage movement in America is also “American History.” It’s possible to have a designated span of time to celebrate and draw attention to a particular subject while also learning about that subject the rest of the year. My mother doesn’t forget that I’m her child every day except my birthday just as we shouldn’t (and hopefully don’t) ignore black history in America outside of Black History Month.
Earlier this year, the LA Times released a story about Dubuque titled, “A nearly all-white Iowa town asked itself: ‘Why do we hate?'” Jerome Greer is the former principle of Irving Elementary School in the 1990’s. During his time, this town made national headlines for a burning cross on Irving’s property and racist protests around town. These are issues in the city’s history that should be talked about at every point in the year, not just during Black History Month. Still, it’s good to have a designated month for holding events and drawing attention to a this focused topic.
Black History Month is a set time to refresh, reflect on, and evaluate our American history just like attending church on Sunday; a way to come to a mutual understanding about the past and future.