The History Behind Black History Month

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version
Overview: 

Many educators silently wrestle with the question: Is Black History Month a window of opportunity or just a pigeonhole?

Every year when February rolls around, teachers dutifully shine a spotlight on contributions to our country made by African American inventors, artists, explorers, educators, scientists, leaders, laborers, soldiers and poets. Yet at the same time, many educators silently wrestle with the question: Is Black History Month a window of opportunity or just a pigeonhole? Why set aside a month to teach a subject that should be incorporated into the curriculum all year long? Although textbooks and other curricular materials are improving in their inclusion of under-represented groups, the reality remains that black history is still a largely neglected part of American history. A convincing proof of this notion is the virtual absence of information in textbooks about the founder of Black History Month himself, the African American scholar Carter G. Woodson.

The story of Woodson's life and the founding of what was originally called Negro History Week is unfamiliar to blacks and whites alike, according to Ramon Price, chief curator of the DuSable Museum of African-American History in Chicago, where the celebration was inaugurated in 1926. Many people, he says, are under the mistaken impression that Black History Month was developed as a token gesture by the white establishment.

"I hear a lot of African American young people say things like, 'How come they gave us the shortest month of the year?' And I tell them that nobody gave anybody anything. Carter G. Woodson chose February because it includes the birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln," Price said.

A life of purpose
Born in West Virginia in 1875, Carter Godwin Woodson seemed filled with purpose from a young age. His parents were former slaves and instilled in him the value of education -- something that would inspire his life's work. The oldest of nine children, Woodson worked to help support his family, educating himself until, at age 20, he was able to enter high school, finishing in just two years. He went on to earn a degree in literature from Berea College, again finishing in two years. He was the second African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University, Woodson's being in history.

Throughout the years, Woodson's commitment to education grew. As a teacher, principal and supervisor of schools, he saw that the history of African Americans was neglected -- even absent -- in curriculum. Determined to change this, Woodson committed himself to the study of the African American experience.

"What makes him unique is that he established an association for the specific purpose of looking at African American history," says Larry Martin, chair of the Department of History, Geography and International Studies at Coppin State College in Baltimore and editor of the Black History Month Learning Resource Package. (See Resources) Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH) in 1915, an organization still in existence today. A year later, he launched the Journal of Negro History. In 1933, he published the highly regarded book The Mis-Education of the Negro .

A sense of history and self
In perhaps his most significant effort to improve the quality of education, Woodson established Negro History Week, which evolved into Black History Month following the Black Consciousness Movement of the 1960s. Woodson sought to help African Americans rediscover a history which had been intentionally buried by white mainstream culture. His hope was to reinvigorate the self-esteem, sense of power and hunger for justice of a long-oppressed people. Woodson wrote in The Mis-Education of the Negro: "No systematic effort toward change has been possible, for, taught the same economics, history, philosophy, literature and religion ... the Negro's mind has been brought under the control of this oppressor. ... When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions."

A second goal in developing Negro History Week was to foster understanding between the races. Woodson believed that if whites learned of blacks' contributions to American history and humanity, this awareness would engender respect.

Ramon Price of the DuSable Museum feels that the recent attention paid to the Amistad incident, during which a group of West Africans mutinied for freedom after being torn from their homeland and incarcerated on a slave ship bound for America, offers a perfect example of why African American History Month is necessary for all students.

"This battle for freedom is one of the most dramatic and poignant examples of the American experience, and yet there have been generations denied knowledge of their own heritage," Price notes, adding, "and when I say 'their own heritage,' I'm not talking just about blacks. I can think of so many white youngsters who are looking at the fictionalized version of Amistad, and they're coming out of the movie theater so ecstatic because they're proud of the fact that there were abolitionists who stood up for what was right." Price says that February reminds us of the need to search for this "lost" history. "Those missing pages are there, and it is so vital to restore them."

A critical approach to history
Cynthia Neverdon-Morton, visiting editor of the Negro History Bulletin (launched by Woodson in 1937) and a professor at Coppin State College, points out that in addition to highlighting the contributions of black citizens, it is important to guide students in reflecting about our nation's long history of discrimination against African Americans and the implications for today. For example, she notes, the focus of this year's celebration, "African Americans and Business: The Path Towards Empowerment," should naturally include a study of economic injustices that still impact African Americans.

"The goal of becoming full productive citizens -- accepted citizens -- has not been achieved," Neverdon-Morton says. "Racism is still alive and well. We are a nation with an open sore."

African American History Month is a reminder to all of us to continue Carter G. Woodson's commitment -- to bring greater regard for the contributions of African Americans to this country, to understand and overcome a legacy of oppression and racism, and, in so doing, to further racial harmony among us all.

Joan Novelli is a free-lance education writer based in Burlington, Vermont.

Books
Letters from a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs by Mary E. Lyons (Atheneum, 1992). The author's letter format brings time and place to life to tell the extraordinary story of an enslaved child determined to read, write and live free.

The National Civil Rights Movement Celebrates Everyday People by Alice Faye Duncan (Bridgewater Books, 1995). Tour the National Civil Rights Museum (formerly the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed) with this photo essay.

Oh, Freedom! Kids Talk About the Civil Rights Movement with the People Who Made It Happen. Forward by Rosa Parks (Knopf, 1997). Transcripts of interviews conducted by children will inspire your students to conduct their own.

Smoky Night by Eve Bunting (Harcourt Brace, 1994). In this Caldecott Award winner inspired by the 1992 Los Angeles riots, two cats and a child show us how people who don't get along can come together.

They Had a Dream by Jules Archer (Puffin, 1993). Portraits of four who fought for equal rights reveal the struggle of Blacks in America.

(Sept. 2007)