In 1926, the historian Carter G. Woodson, co-founder (with the prominent minister Jesse Moorland) of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, proclaimed the second week of February as “Negro History Week,” to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14).
These two beacons of freedom and equality had been celebrated in the Negro community since the Civil War era—in much the same way that Black Americans of the 1960s celebrated John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King (for example, with framed photos displayed in a prominent place of honor on the living room wall).
From its inception, the main purpose of Negro History Week was to promote the coordinated teaching of the history of the American Negro in the nation’s segregated public schools. With the added support of Black churches and newspapers, Negro History Week had spread to nearly all Negro Departments of Education, nationwide. Over the ensuing decades, Negro History Week continued to be observed in the Black community.
It goes without saying that this was a “separate but equal time” in which our forebears in the Black community could learn about the accomplishments of our own people. But even among some people of my parents’ generation—who attended school between the 1930s and 1940s (and are now approaching or already are in their 80s), I recall some mild derision at the idea of having just a week to study our history. At the same time, there was pride in having memorized all the verses of “The Negro National Anthem”—Lift Every Voice and Sing—in the course of those brief periods of study.
In my own experience, the White world could care less about “Negro” history. In my 90%+ white junior high school in 1964-1966 Baltimore, it was made plain to me that my history meant nothing. In a desperate attempt to “fit in” with my 8th-grade Civics class, I foolishly proclaimed my “British” ancestry, based on nothing more than my unusual surname (Oldham) and the decidedly ivory complexion of that side of my family.
The expansion of Black History Week to Black History Month is credited to the leaders of the Black United Students at Kent State University in
1969, with their first celebration of the Black History Month occurring
at Kent State in 1970. In 1976, as part of the United States Bicentennial, this expansion of Negro History Week to Black History
Month was officially recognized by the U.S. government, and specifically by President Gerald Ford.
This fact is news to me. When I try to think back on those years, I honestly can’t remember when the “Week” became the “Month.” I do remember, though, that there has always been discussion among my family/friends/communities about whether a special time period for Black History was even necessary or desirable. At the heart of this debate is the idea that “Black History” is American History and should be studied within that context.
What is truly scary is that now—in the 21st Century—there are [mostly white] Southern revisionists of American History —like Lousiana Governor Bobby Jindal [how does he qualify as “white”??] and Texas school boards trying to promulgate the old “Slavery-was-great” lie in new school textbooks.
There has also been some debate about the merits of other “History” Months that have sprung up since the 1970s, including: Filipino American, Women’s, and LGBT History Months; and “Heritage” months like Irish-American, Jewish American, National Hispanic, and Puerto Rican Heritage Months.
Given the propensity of the WASP American “majority” (an endangered species) to marginalize groups not just on the basis of color but also on the basis of ethnicity and sexual orientation, I accept most of these as valid and worthy extensions of the Black History/Heritage movement.
This year is the Centennial of the founding of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).
I am grateful that such an organization exists and continues to enrich our understanding and appreciation of the Colored/Negro/Black/African American Community. And yes, I approve the use of all of the above descriptors of my community, in the interest of historical accuracy.