“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.” — Carter G. Woodson
This February marks the 47th anniversary of the federal government’s recognition of Black History Month. Though Black history had been celebrated in many parts of the Black communities for well over a century, it wasn’t until 1976 that the the United States Government formally recognized February as Black History Month. This anniversary comes at a time when Black history is celebrated by millions across the country, yet under attack by several state legislatures and several governors, primarily in the southern parts of the US.
The celebration and teaching of Black history has its roots in the 1890’s, soon after the death of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1895. Mary Church Terrell, an educator and activist in Washington DC, convinced the local school board to set aside February 14, 1897 as a day to celebrate and teach about the life of Douglass who claimed Valentine’s Day for his birthday, as no record of his actual birth existed.
Even before activists pushed for greater recognition and study of Black history, it had been taught in the South, often at great peril, for decades following emancipation, often as a supplement to the history texts that mostly omitted it. After Mary Church Terrell elevated awareness of Black history in our nation’s capital, Carter G. Woodson took it to a national level. The son of former enslaved African Americans and the second Black person to receive a PhD from Harvard, Woodson is considered the Father of Black History Month. As noted in Black Past Woodson’s crusade for Black history dates back to 1915 in Chicago where Woodson had arrived to attend an exhibit marking the 50th anniversary of emancipation. Woodson was so impressed with the overwhelming turnout for the exhibit that he made promoting the contributions of Black Americans to the country’s history a major part of his life’s work.
Woodson began by helping establish the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in the hopes of setting the record straight in regards to the achievements of Black people in America. In 1916 he and a few colleagues, published their findings in The Journal of Negro History in the hopes of inspiring others to promote Black achievements.
In 1926 Woodson and the Association pushed Black history to greater recognition by establishing Negro History Week. Following the tradition set by Ms. Terrell and followed by others, Woodson chose the same week of Douglass’s recognized birthday and that of Abraham Lincoln’s to honor Black past. Though a great admirer of both these men, Woodson wanted Black history to focus more on the efforts of every day Black folks, noting that it was neither Lincoln nor Douglass that freed the slaves: it was Black soldiers along with their white counterparts that made emancipation possible.
The celebration of Negro History Week spread across the nation and by the 1960’s there were calls to expand the celebration to a month. Kent State became the first university to recognize February as Black History Month.
As part of the nation’s bicentennial, the President Gerald R. Ford formally proclaimed what had been celebrated in many Black communities for decades: February as Black History Month. In doing so he urged Americas to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history”.
The Forty-seventh Anniversary of BHM comes at a time when the teaching of Black history is under attack. Since January of 2021 legislators in 37 states have introduced laws that limit how race and racism can be presented in the classroom. Republican-led legislatures in fourteen states have passed laws that either ban or limit schools from teaching that racism has played a part in American institutions over the years.
These new restrictions have put history teachers on edge in many states. An Oklahoma history teacher, Eric Parker, feels the added stress. He wants to stand firm, but is guarded. “I am not going to let any of these laws deter me from the things that I think work best for students. But I also enjoy working with students and having a roof over my head.”
The teaching of Black history which is, of course, American history, has become embroiled in the so-called culture wars of politics that, in part, are at the heart of the country’s polarization. Several state legislatures and school boards have banned The 1619 Project from the classroom as well as what has been referred to as Critical Race Theory, a concept studied exclusively in graduate schools. To many observers, the attacks from primarily Republican-led states amount to a war on history that must be met head on. It is fitting that Black History Month’s 2023 theme is “Resistance”.
Dr. Woodson believed that history can affect the present in a positive way. As history is now at the center of passionate politics, it appears that the present may affect history.
Regardless, Black History Month is a yearly reminder that Black people were and are a vital force in American history— from before the Mayflower, to the building of the Capitol by primarily slave labor, to the many Black police officers that defended the Capitol on January 6, 2021. These facts are undeniable and worthy of being honored.