Remembering: The Genesis of Black History Month
The words of Dr. Carter G. Woodson best describe the reasons for the inception of Negro History Week, which he started in 1926. In the October 1927 edition of the Journal of Negro History, Dr. Woodson wrote:
The celebration tends not to promote propaganda, but to counteract it by popularizing the truth. It is not interested so much in Negro History as it is in history influenced by the Negro; for what the world needs is not a history of selected races or nations but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice. There has been, therefore, no tendency to eulogize the Negro nor to abuse his enemies. The aim has been to emphasize important facts in the belief that facts properly set forth will speak for themselves.
Dr. Woodson is the “Father of Black History.” In 1915, he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) and the next year published the first edition of the Journal of Negro History.
The initiating of Negro History Week by Dr. Woodson was consistent with his commitment to institutionalizing the study and propagation of black history. It was probably in November of 1925 that Dr. Woodson thought to begin this celebration. During this time, he communicated with other influential African Americans, all of whom supported the idea. They then agreed on the second week of February for the observance of the achievements of the “Negro.” This week was chosen because it’s the week of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and both of them were highly respected at that time. Through the support of educators, ministers, and community leaders around the country, the first Negro History Week was a success. Each group and institution was left to its own initiative in working out a program particular to their local needs. This first observance included community speaker forums, discourses on Black history, and school plays portraying heroes in Black history. Special programs were also conducted by social welfare agencies, business organizations and recreational establishments. The celebration was generally observed by African Americans, however, there were integrated schools that participated.
During the 1960s the use of “Black” and “Afro-American” replaced the popular use of “Negro.” At the 1972 Convention of the ASNLH held in Cincinnati, Ohio, pressure from young delegates forced the organization to change its name to the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH). Negro History Week was then changed to Black History Week.
During America's Bicentennial celebration in 1976 the ASALH joined the nation in its focus on American history and decided to expand the observance of Black History Week to include the entire month of February. This was done to provide time for more activities focusing on the vast contributions of Blacks to the history of America. The observance was so successful that the association decided to continue its monthly celebration.
The need for Black History Month has not diminished since the inception of Negro History Week in 1925. Dr. Woodson's rationale for the celebration remains relevant even into the 21st century. The contributions of African people continue to be misrepresented or not represented in history. Unfortunately, there are many white Americans who have greatly benefited from misinformation and lies about black people. The belief that the African was of an inferior race gave justification to chattel slavery. Through the use of slave labor, America was built largely by people who never reaped the benefits of even being recognized as citizens. Slavery created a tremendous disadvantage for black people mentally and economically. Yet, it created great benefits for whites and their descendants. The debunking of religious, scientific, historical and philosophical misinformation about Blacks has continued into the 21st century. The history of African Americans may one day become a recognized part of American heritage. Perhaps, all American children will soon be taught about the great black athletes, scientists, inventors, artists, politicians, educators, entrepreneurs, explorers, ministers, and soldiers, just as black children are always taught of whites in these areas. A true and objective presentation of history eliminates the foundation of racism for some and increases the self-esteem of others. The observance of Black History Month must lead to the day when the history of the world will be void of national bias, race hate and religious prejudice.
How to Celebrate Black History Month
African Heritage - 1st Week: During the first week celebrations should focus on the contributions of Africans to world history. Attention must be given to the fact that all races came from African ancestors and that Kemet (Egypt) is the cradle of civilization. We must also remember how the wealth taken from Africa by colonial powers through exploitation of the people, minerals and land made the Western World powers quite rich. Our African heritage should be honored through our giving financial support to impoverished African nations and by supporting the anti-colonial movements in Africa. By paying this tribute, we show our respect for our African heritage and our commitment to the future of the Mother Continent.
African Holocaust - 2nd Week: During the second week memorial programs should be held to remember the tens of millions of Africans who died as a result of the slave trade and racism in America. They died fighting against slavery in Africa, died in slave ships in the Middle Passage, died in chattel slavery, died revolting against slavery in America, died from lynching, died in race riots that have taken place in hundreds of American cities, died from police brutality, died from chemical warfare (e.g., AIDS), and they died from alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs pushed in our communities. Families must honor the memory of their known and unknown ancestors who died in America. The children of the family must be told about their ancestors who have already passed on, especially those who died fighting for freedom.
Great Heroes and Heroines - 3rd Week: During the third week we must pay tribute to the many men and women of distinction in Black history. We must remember the great educators, abolitionists, inventors, scientists, entrepreneurs, athletes, artists, entertainers, ministers, soldiers, and others of our past. Children should portray their heroes and heroines by acting in plays and skits. Adults could have fun honoring theirs by holding costume parties and dressing in the likeness of their heroes and heroines.
Rites of Passage - 4th Week: The last week should be used as an opportunity for the men and women of the community to conduct Rites of Passage Programs for young boys and girls. This is a process of taking youth into adulthood by training them on their history, morals, values, spirituality, sexuality, economics, and responsibilities to their family. This training may be designed to pass on family, religious and/or cultural values. The training should be segregated by gender and the youth should be between 12 to 17 years old. The passage may take several hours or even days. At the completion of the rites, the new adult should be given something of value to signify their passing into adulthood.
James C. Anyike, Author
African American Holidays: A Historical Research and Resource Guide to Cultural Celebrations