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History Behind February's Black History Month

By Edited Apr 8, 2016 2 4

Celebrating the 13%

When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions.  He will find his ‘proper place’ and stand in it.
—Carter Woodson

Many holidays considered institutions or otherwise venerated as somehow timeless were in reality the product of successful lobbying by a person or group.

Christmas, the golem to end all golems with respect to lucre generated, was only sporadically celebrated during most of the first millennia after Jesus’ death, starting with the Romans in the 4th Century CE.  It wasn’t until the middling part of the 18th Century that it became a regular observance for many (mostly only the very wealthy), thanks largely in part to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Story (published in 1843).  That quaint novel set the ideal for Christmas for the masses as a family oriented time.  And even with that extra push in popularity the holiday still hadn’t gained its juggernaut, mostly non-secular, status until after World War II.  [And the commercialism associated with Christmas can be traced straight back to Clement Clarke Moore’ 1822 poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas.  The poem popularized the up-till-then less-practiced tradition of gift giving.]

Unlike Christmas, Thanksgiving Day in the Western hemisphere has no basis in religion.  It was a created holiday based upon the harvest celebration of early New England white settlers (who happened to be Puritans) in October 1621.  [The harvest festival idea was one celebrated all across the known world for centuries beforehand.]  But Thanksgiving did not become a fixture on the US calendar until the mid 19th Century when a woman lobbied strongly—for 40 years!—to have it recognized as a regular national holiday.

Similarly, the Hallmark Holidays that so many people venerate are not steeped in the traditions popularly believed.  St. Valentine’s Day is now routinely called “Valentine’s Day” as there is much doubt as to the existence of a real saint of that name who allegedly lent his name to the celebration.  And the celebration itself, though observed at various times, usually in February starting around the 14th Century, has its roots in pagan fertility rites.  The “romantic love” so naively thrown about as the basis for it today didn’t show up until centuries later.  The original feast celebrated carnality, not love.

And like Thanksgiving the calendar has another woman to thank for creating the mother (no pun intended) of all Hallmark Holidays, Mothers’ Day.  After lobbying for decades to get “her” holiday recognized nationally (put into effect by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914), once she saw the commercialization of “her” day she worked just as hard to have it unrecognized!  She went to her grave (in 1948 at the age of 84) railing against the monster she had birthed.

Holidays or special celebration times do not all have to be frivolous in origin or silly in their sentiments (like Mothers’ Day).  It is good for humanity to occasionally take time out and recognize the contributions of fellow humans whether that be an individual, family, or an entire demographic.

It was the desire to bring forth the accomplishments of Americans of African descent that led to the creation of Black History Month.

February is Black History Month
Credit: Vic Dillinger, 2016

Black like Some of Us
In the United States currently the percentage of people who identify as either black or of African descent is 13.2%.  Compare this to the number who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual (less than 2% for each of those classes) or left-handed (around 10%) and one can see blacks do not make up a very large chunk of the population.

However, despite their lack of majority presence this group has perhaps more than any other helped shape America and build it into what it is today.

This obvious building begins with Africans captured and forced into slavery in the budding Colonies.  Afterward, with importation outlawed, but with slavery still an institution blacks were raised on plantations like any other form of livestock (though considerably more valuable). 

Slaves built roads and cleared land. 

It was slaves who worked the plantations and farms (in the North and South initially) and made them profitable. 

It was the slaves who built the Big House where ol’ Massa lived.  [And I always cringe when I visit a stately historical home owned by a famous person from that era and the tour guide says, “Mr.  Beauregard Lee Whicket-Smurf built this house in 1857.”  I always point to the slave quarters tucked away on the grounds —if they are even featured—and say, “No, he didn’t, they did.”  Tour guides hate me, by the way.]  

Once slavery was outlawed and the slaves were freed Americans of duskier skin color found themselves disenfranchised.  Lacking basic education and with no incentive for the recently defeated Southern whites to help them in any way many migrated to the North to find jobs. 

During the ante-bellum period, though, there were individuals, white and black (freed) who wanted to see the “Negroes” have a better chance, to raise up their lot in life. 

Such agitators as the white man, the fiery zealot John Brown (executed in 1859 after attempting to foment a slave rebellion in Maryland and Virginia) brought a radical’s touch to the plight of slaves and the blight that was slavery.

Frederick Douglass & John Brown (c 1850s)
Credit: public domain

Free man, Frederick Douglass, wrote and gave speeches talking about abolition and what it means to be a man of color in America. 

There were many others, too, who felt the need to help their black brothers and sisters rise up from their lowly state and join the rest of the United States, enjoying its opportunities, education, and prosperity.

Getting a Voice
Reconstruction efforts in the South after the Civil War failed mostly because the whites living there did not want to see a day when blacks and whites lived comfortably side-by-side.  The segregationist policies of the Jim Crow period (when race relations in the US were at their absolute lowest from roughly 1890 through the late 1920s and beyond) made sure blacks stayed “in their place”.  Many “Colored Only” rules were in place to insure that blacks and whites did not intermingle very often.   These affected where a black family could live, what kind of jobs blacks could hold, and where their children went to school.

It may seem ludicrous to think of a particular racial or ethnic group as needing “leaders” or “spokespeople” for the group (one often hears of “black leaders”; one never hears of “white leaders”).  The cohort of people of color moving out of the Reconstruction Era into the earliest parts of the 20th Century, however, did need “leaders”, more educated men and women who could present themselves well and speak to those in power about the needs of their more uneducated and culturally ignorant fellows.

Carter Godwin Woodson (c. 1895)
Credit: New River Gorge National River website, National Park Service, Department of the Interior, United States Government; public domain

Such a voice for “raising up the race” was Carter Godwin Woodson (1875-1950).  He was born into a very poor family in Virginia.  His parents were former slaves.  Wanting better for his family, and having learned there was a school for black children being built in Huntington, West Virginia, Woodson’s father moved the family there.

Carter was able to get some schooling early on, but because of poverty he was forced to go to work at an early age and could not attend regularly.  Thus, he was largely self-taught up to about the age of 17.  He then went to work in the coal mines (one of the few places blacks could get hired without much question).  He was able to devote little time to his education, but at the age of 20 he enrolled in a black high school named for Frederick Douglass.  He graduated in two years (in 1895).  He taught locally for two years, and then was named principal of Douglass High School in 1900.  He managed to earn an undergraduate degree from Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, in 1903, taking classes part time.  [It is unclear if he moved to Berea to matriculate or if he commuted the nearly 300 miles one-way regularly to do so.]

From 1903 to 1907 he was a school supervisor in the Philippines.  Accelerating his educational achievements he earned two Associate’s degrees from the University of Chicago in 1908 before enrolling in Harvard.  In 1912 he earned his PhD from that institution, only the second black person to have ever received a doctorate from there (the first was writer, historian, and civil rights activist, W. E. B. Du Bois ).

He became concerned with the lack of scholarly interest in the history and accomplishments of blacks in America.  In 1915 he published a book on “Colored” education, The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861.  That same year he created the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.  This was a think tank organization dedicated to preserving and promoting a more balanced view of blacks and their place in history and how those subjects were being presented to the public and, more importantly, in schools.

About a year later, Carter Woodson began publication of The Journal of Negro History. The goal of this quarterly was to stimulate discussion about black history.  It was also meant to educate those who had a hand in teaching black children, whether that is civic leaders, school teachers, parents, or religious figures.

“Give Us a Week, Please”
Carter Woodson dedicated his life to being an educator, historian, and a voice of reason with respect to promoting black history and the achievements of greet African-Americans. He wanted to undo the current state of affairs in which issues or histories about African-Americans “were overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them”.

He felt black history was not being written, and what had been written was ignored:

“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.  The American Indian left no continuous record.  He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today?  The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself.  In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization.”

[While Carter’s statement about Native Americans may seem unduly harsh he is correct.  The only knowledge of the past greatness of many tribal groups are written on the landscape (in the form of ceremonial mounds or burial sites) and by their oral traditions.  And both methods of “recording” leaves things open to interpretation by later generations, losing truth in the process.]

Wanting to gain some kind of public notice for “colored” accomplishments, Carter suggested the creation of a “Negro History Week”.  He set the term as the second week in February as it carried the birthdates of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

The inaugural celebration was in 1926.   And while the rest of the country did little the departments of education in three east coast states and those in two large cities (Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, DC) participated, helping expose anyone who was interested to black history.   

Negro History Week program (cropped; early 20th Century)

From that very tepid beginning the idea gained momentum so that by 1929 every state but two “with [a] considerable Negro population” had made efforts to notify teachers of the event and to send out literature about it to interested parties. Furthermore, many churches began discussing Negro History Week and keeping it as an annual affair as well.

The success of Negro History Week meant formations of black history clubs and other civic groups to discuss race issues, social concerns, and general cultural subjects.

“How Come There Ain’t no White History Month?”
As early as 1969 there was talk of expanding the scope of Negro History Week into an educational forum that would last a month.  The source of this suggestion was a group of students at Kent State University, and they celebrated the first “Black History Month” in 1970, changing the racial identifier to the more politically-correct term (for the times; it is now called “African-American History Month” by many).

With the spirit of the US Bicentennial upon him US President Gerald R. Ford officially recognized Black History Month as a national event in which to take part.  [The U.K. officially designated their version in 1987; Canada did likewise in 1995.]

At the time of its official government recognition anyone could hear the racist’s complaint:

Black history month?  Wull, how come they get a black history month?  Are we gonna get us a white history month?”

The answer to that is a resounding “No!” for the simple fact that, historically in the United States, every month is white history month.  Elementary school history classes start early in teaching children about American history, but from the white European perspective (as “conquerors and settlers” versus what Native Americans would call them, “invaders and usurpers”, for example).  No, there is no need for a white history month.

There have been other criticisms as well.  Some suggest that having a separate month (even though it is the shortest of the year!) set aside to promote and celebrate black history is divisive, forcing a separatist attitude upon the public.  Also, the short answer there is “No!” as well.  Black History Month embraces us all because the history of African-Americans in the United States touches on the history of all of its citizens.

Contributions by “Negro” entrepreneurs (such as cosmetics pioneer Madame C. J. Walker), scientists (like botanist and chemist, George Washington Carver, or more recently astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson), authors (the phenomenal Langston Hughes and the truly great Alice Walker), and poets (Gwendolyn Brooks and Maya Angelou) play a part in the life of every American. 

Ever dropped a letter in a hinged-door mailbox on a street corner?  Invented by a black man.  Traffic signals?  A black man.  Home security system?  Invented by a black woman.  These and countless other inventions, processes, novels, art works, philosophical ideas, etc., came from many, many enlightened, talented, creative, and intelligent African-Americans.

Yes, there was a time when blacks literally did the bricks-and-mortar work of building this country from the ground up.  But they have also helped expand on that base, and their contributions need to be recognized.

So . . . “they” get one month out of the year?  That 28-day month, February?  Let’s see . . . those 28 days represent 7.6% of a calendar year.  With people of African descent comprising 13.2% of the population technically that’s not enough time—they should get 48 days (do the math).

And if no one likes that, here’s some more math: people of African descent were on this landmass, working as slaves, nearly 160 years before the United States was even an independent country.  So that means “they” have been here 150% longer than the country has been a sovereign nation!  And it seems likely in the nearly 400 years since then these people as a race have accomplished a thing or two.

Know, then, African-American History Month for what it is: a chance to learn something about an extremely influential group of people who shaped this country into what it is today. 

Make Carter Woodson proud!

***

Carter Woodson's pioneering treatise . . .

. . . and his best-known social statement

The Mis-Education of the Negro
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(this is my work)

Trucker Man
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Comments

Jan 29, 2016 6:11pm
Browna86
Can't remember the organization or the sponsor but they do a separate thing with African American history study by doing synopsis throughout the entire year. Anywho, the whole month of remembrance is an interesting one but came to dread it while I was in school. Why?

There were instructors that took the month of dedication to some unpleasant places. We would get introduced to fun projects that were tagged as optional but later changed, often times at last minute, to mandatory. That said, there were some instructors I came across that had deep, intimate knowledge of history in general; many of which we never came across in textbooks.

History Channel, Travel Channel, ETV and the library were my go to places for gathering new information that wasn't readily available in commonly referenced materials. One of the things I encountered while watching a program on all forms of art, there were some countries outside of the US that had more of an unbiased view of ethnic groups.

Seeing documentaries what people of color accomplished but got little to no credit were more intriguing than windy lecture sessions. The Tuskegee Airman were an interesting bunch and to see them on television giving commentary of what they went through was mind blowing with a dash of humor; the humor came in when they (some of them) were censoring themselves.

Then there was another documentary focusing on...I think it was focusing on a war or something similar but do know it involved the military. There were two different groups of soldiers that were tasked with building this road in a very much frigid unkind wilderness to connect two places; very expansive.

The AfricanAmerican soldiers started from the middle of nowhere and had to forge a path from where they were to the halfway point where they would, hopefully, run into the other team forging from the opposite direction. End Result: both teams survived and completed their mission. Another interesting article.

Funny how thorough explanations of certain events throughout the year don't surface as often as one would like.
Jan 29, 2016 9:20pm
vicdillinger
That was Carter Woodson's whole basic point: African-American history was either not being taught at all or what was presented was nothing but a mere swipe.

And as for the Airmen and other volunteers during WWII--they enlisted only to find they not only weren't wanted but were considered as nearly useless as combatants. Nothing like fighting for the freedom of a country that won't guarantee your personal, and black, freedom (at that time).

Thanks for reading.
Jan 30, 2016 6:49pm
Browna86
No problem. Sorry about the post; didn't realize I wrote a novel instead of a response.
Jan 30, 2016 8:32pm
vicdillinger
Yer telling me? I don't mind " long" as you can tell.
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Bibliography

  1. "Christmas." Britannica Ready Reference 2003. 2002.
  2. "Quick Facts United States." quickfacts.census.gov. 28/01/2016 <Web >
  3. "Velentine's Day." Britannica Ready Reference 2003. 2002.
  4. "Carter Godwin Woodson." Britannica Ready Reference 2003. 2002.
  5. "Carter G Woodson." en.wikipedia.org. 28/01/2016 <Web >
  6. "Black History Month." en.wikipedia.org. 28/01/2016 <Web >

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