February is Black History Month, during which the contributions, achievements and triumphs of Black people are celebrated.
While “What is Black History Month?” is often asked, a more focused question we should be asking is “Why is Black History Month?” The answers to both of these questions help lay a groundwork and a path to better understanding. While the answers are similar, asking the latter question will further deepen our understanding.
The official start of Black History Month was in 1976, when President Gerald Ford expanded what had until that point been Black History Week, recognized through schools and independent organizations. President Ford, however, called upon the country to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” As a testament to the month’s importance, all subsequent presidents have supported the designation.
The genesis took place a century before with the birth of Carter G. Woodson on Dec. 19, 1875. Woodson was born in New Canton, Virginia, the fourth of seven children. He spent his youth share-cropping and mining as a way of helping to support his family. Woodson attended high school in his late teens but completed four years of study in less than two years. Woodson attended Berea College in Kentucky and then became an education superintendent in the Philippines for the U.S. Government.
Returning stateside, Woodson continued his education by earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Chicago. He eventually earned a Doctorate from Harvard University in 1912. Woodson’s accomplishment was exemplary even by today’s standards, but his accomplishments carry far greater weight considering Woodson was only the second African American (after W.E.B. Du Bois) to earn that ultimate degree.
His education completed, Woodson focused his credentials and energy to the field of African American History. He helped found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 (which became the Association for the Study of African American Life and History), and according to Biography, “established the scholarly publication Journal of Negro History in 1916, and to help teachers with African American studies, he created the Negro History Bulletin in 1937. Woodson also formed the African American-owned Associated Publishers Press in 1921.”
Woodson’s efforts began to bring African American history to the awareness of the country, laboring in a time when American society routinely rejected or ignored African Americans.
Undeterred, he lobbied schools and organizations to adopt a special program that encouraged the study of African American history, called Negro History Week, which began in February of 1926. Woodson chose the month to coincide with the birth month of President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
The two men represented the hope and the challenges already overcome by African Americans. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves. Douglass was born a slave in Talbot County, Maryland, but went on to help shape the future of the country and affect the world at large. Douglass, whose official birth date is not known (around 1818), chose to celebrate it on Feb. 14. He was known as one of the premiere intellects of his day. Douglass advised presidents and became a much sought-after lecturer who spoke on a wide array of topics that included Women’s Rights and Irish Home Rule.
While Woodson and Douglass are examples of the “what” and “why” of Black History Month, it is more. It is the untold and unnoticed stories. It is the stories of contributions made to society. It is the stories of Blacks throughout American history. Black History is American history.
To ignore the contributions of any member or group within a society serves to lessen the value of that society as a whole — because without all of its members, society itself is not whole.
The answer to the question of “Why is Black History Month?” becomes obvious whether some choose to recognize it or not. Woodson believed every month should be Black History Month. Recognizing the contributions of the Black community is something all Americans should strive to do.
The “why,” simply put, is because we need it. We need to remember all of our history so that we may improve upon the history we are making for our children and their children’s children.