Updated: Jan 13
“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.” So argued Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH).
In 1915, Woodson participated in Chicago’s Lincoln Jubilee, a celebration of 50 years of emancipation from slavery. Having recently earned his doctorate in history from Harvard, he realized the value in celebrating Black heritage and culture. Woodson spent the next decade promoting the teaching of Black history and celebration of Black leaders. Initially, only a few state and city education administrators supported his efforts. But with perseverance and the support of newspapers that served African American communities, Black History Week was slowly adopted in a growing number of Black school curriculums. In 1926, the ASNLH declared the second week in February to be Black History Week, which coincided with celebrations traditionally held to mark the birthdays of Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14th) and Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12th). With the continued promotion from Black churches and newspapers throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, the celebration of Black History Week spread throughout the country. "When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions", Woodson wrote in his book The Miseducation of the American Negro, "you do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his 'proper place' and will stay in it."
The history that was being shared during Black History Week countered the myth that slaves had been well-treated and were better off during slavery. By 1969, calls to expand into Black History Month started to be answered, with Kent State University marking the first Black History Month in February, 1969. President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month in 1976. It’s now celebrated in the United Kingdom (since 1987), Germany (1990), Canada (1995) and Ireland (2010).
There are two lessons worth noting in this story. Carter Woodson died in 1950, mistakenly believing that the idea he had nurtured for 35 years would eventually fade. Instead, it has grown into an international celebration. So Lesson #1 is to not get discouraged when you can’t see the full culmination of the seeds you’ve planted. Lesson #2 is to realize that while Woodson put forth enormous energy to see his idea take root, he didn’t act alone. Black History Month started with one man, but grew because many others supported that idea and invested their own energies as well. It’s tempting to shrink away from problems, mistakenly believing that because we are only one person, we can’t make much of a difference. What we forget is that we don’t have to make a difference all alone. Some critics argue that a Black History month is an ongoing form of segregation. They feel that the teaching of Black history should be woven throughout the teachings of American history. Though we agree that no recounting of American history is accurate and complete without the full integration of Black history, it does seem worthwhile to deliberately and thoughtfully recognize those who have blazed trails and courageously created change. For the rest of this month, GRR will celebrate the gifts of Black Americans whose lives inspire us. To learn more about Carter G. Wilson, we recommend: https://asalh.org/about-us/origins-of-black-history-month/