The History of Black History Month
February 3, 2014
What's In A Name
I can't address the history without first mentioning the journey of racial labeling. In the early 1800s, German anthropologist Friedrich Blumenbach divided Homo sapiens into five distinct races based on their physical characteristics. There was the Mongolian, or "yellow" race, the red American race, the brown Malayan race, the black Ethiopian race, and the white Caucasian race. He categorized but did not set up a hierarchy based on any of his work. During my lifetime I have gone through a transition of labels-- Negro, Colored, Afro-American, Black, and African-American. Barring unforeseen adjustments, the current label seems to have taken hold. Keep in mind there have been variations, Mulatto, Bi-Racial, and people of color; the latter is a currently acceptable term referring to any non-White American.
Pickaninny, Boy, and the N word are three words used purposely over the years by some to reference African-Americans and ignorantly uttered by others without understanding either the hurt or anger these words can cause. The use of the N word by some of the younger generation as a term of endearment is in direct opposition of older generations who know the word and its original intended use.
Just seeing these words in print probably makes you as uncomfortable as I feel in writing them, but it's a part of reality. There are other derogatory terms but I thought naming the top three would make my point.
How It All Got Started
The origins of Black History Month can be traced back to Dr. Carter G. Woodson --historian, journalist, author and one of the founders of the Association of Negro Life and History. Today the organization is known as the Association for the Study of African-American and History or ASALH. As the story goes, D.W. Griffith's 1915 movie, Birth of a Nation inspired him to publish "The Journal of Negro History" in 1916. Although the movie pioneered many innovative filming techniques, it was a racist epic depicting African-American men as shiftless, stupid, oversexed and conniving; white male actors in black face played the parts of Negro men. The storyline of the Civil War aftermath had Klux Klux Klansmen as heroes protecting the virtue of white females and reversing the advances provided by reconstruction for blacks in the South.
Needless to say it did not promote racial harmony; instead it suggested African Americans be shipped to Liberia. Unlike today, with all the various forms of media, there was no information highway so movies were the Internet of their day. Such a movie distorted the history of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and slavery. Although it upset many who viewed it as a vile piece of propaganda, it was a box office smash, but there were lots of protests by black and white alike. The movie did two things -- it was credited with aiding the growth of the Klan and it gave cause to Dr. Woodson and others to strive for a balanced history.
First Came Negro History Week
Ten years after the creation of "The Journal of Negro History," Dr. Woodson devised a plan for a week of activities devoted to recognizing the accomplishments and contributions of Negros in America. Woodson also wanted to use it as a tool to inspire African-Americans and hopefully encourage better relations between blacks and whites. He chose February 7th, 1926 as the first Negro History Week because it included the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12th) and Frederick Douglass (Feb.14th). Lincoln's significance was the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves and Douglass was a former slave, abolitionist and one of the most famous intellectuals of his time.
Who Was Dr. Carter Goodwin Woodson?
Dr. Woodson said, "Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history."
Known as the father of Black History, he was born in 1875 to former slaves, worked as a miner and farmer, entered high school at 20, received his diploma in two years and earned a Bachelor of Literature degree in 1900. He was a school supervisor in the Philippines, traveled Europe and Asia and studied at the Sorbonne University in Paris, in 1908, received his M.A. from the University of Chicago, and in 1912, his Ph.D. degree in history from Harvard University.
Throughout his lifetime he published over 15 books on the topic of the Negroes. His message was that Blacks should be proud of their heritage and that other Americans should also understand it. Woodson's philosophy and goal was to make the study of Black History a legitimate part of American History. He died in April 1950.
Slow Acceptance To Negro History
As with anything new, the acceptance of Black History was slow to come around. In his book, "The Mis-Education of the Negro,"(1933) Woodson wrote "Of the hundreds of Negro high schools recently examined by an expert in the U.S.Bureau of Education only 18 offer a course taking up the history of the Negro, and in most of the Negro colleges and universities where Negro is thought of, the race is studied as a problem or dismissed as of little consequence."
Thanks to Negro History Week, requests began to pour into the organization he started for more Black History information. Things got to the point that in 1937, the organization started publishing The Negro History Bulletin targeted at Negro teachers who wanted to incorporate Black History into their lesson plans.
Black History Month
The United States went through wars, the integration of Major League Baseball and the Armed Forces, Brown vs. the Board of Education, integration of the NBA and NFL, John F Kennedy as the first Catholic President, the Greensboro sit-ins, the Montgomery bus boycott, the emergence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), another war, the Cuban Missile crisis, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the enrollment of the first Black student at the University of Alabama, the assassination of President Kennedy, the passing of the Civil Rights Bill, more school integration in the north and south, Malcom X, The Black Panthers, The Gray Panthers, civil unrest and protests over the Vietnam War, President Johnson's War on Poverty, assassination of Senator Bobby Kennedy, Black-owned record labels and radio stations, Martin Luther King's power as a moral leader emerged far beyond his base, Dr. King's assassination, the emergence of Black studies in high schools, colleges, and universities, and finally mainstream historians began mainstreaming in the history books the many contributions African-Americans have made to America.
And At Last
In 1976, the same year our country was celebrating the bicentennial, the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History expanded Black History Week to a month. President Gerald Ford urged Americans to observe Black History Month, but it was President Jimmy Carter who officially started recognizing the month from a federal government standpoint in 1978.
Black History Month has expanded beyond the designated recognition time of the year and historians consistently record the continuous contributions of African-Americans as a part of the ongoing American story. Information is power and don't be fooled, there are still many who try to lull and desensitize our society into taking the accomplishments of African-Americans and minorities as just another part of a celebrating the American way. Some have actually said having an African-American President is proof it is no longer necessary to set aside a specific time to recognize African-Americans' past and present. Wrong ... in radio we all know the more impressions a commercial gets, the more it's in the top-of-mind awareness of the consumer. Progress will continue for African-Americans as long as the message continues to be promoted and marketed. Just like Martin Luther King's Birthday, Black History Month is celebrated by the majority of Americans.
Throughout February, I will be offering more Black History Month insights and information.