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Tue, 02.25.2020

Black History Month in America, a story

*This date from 1970 affirms Black History Month (BHM) in the United States.  Black History Month is an annual observance originating in America, where it is also known as African American History Month.

It has received official recognition from governments in the United States and Canada and, more recently, has been observed unofficially in Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. It began as a way of remembering important episodes, people, locations, and events in the history of the African diaspora. It is celebrated in February in the United States and Canada, while in Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, it is observed in October.   

The precursor to Black History Month was created in 1926 in the United States when historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced the second week of February as "Negro History Week."  This week was chosen because it coincided with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and Frederick Douglass on February 14, both of which Black communities had celebrated together since Reconstruction.  Negro History Week was the center of the equation. The thought process behind the week was never recorded, but scholars acknowledge two reasons for its origin: recognition and importance.  Woodson felt deeply that at least one week would allow the general movement to become celebrated annually. Also, after the ten-year-long haul to complete his "Journal of Negro History," he realized the subject deserved to resonate with a greater audience.  

From the event's initial phase, primary emphasis was placed on encouraging the coordinated teaching of the history of Black Americans in the nation's public schools. The first Negro History Week was met with a lukewarm response, gaining the cooperation of the Departments of Education of the states of North Carolina, Delaware, and West Virginia as well as the city school administrations of Baltimore and Washington, D.C.  Despite this far from universal observance, the event was regarded by Woodson as "one of the most fortunate steps ever taken by the Association” and plans for a repeat of the event on an annual basis continued.  

At the time of Negro History Week's launch, Woodson contended that the teaching of Black History was essential to ensure the physical and intellectual survival of the race within broader society:  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.  

By 1929, The Journal of Negro History noted that with only two exceptions, officials with the State Departments of Education of "every state with considerable Negro population" had made the event known to that state's teachers and distributed official literature associated with the event."  Churches also played a significant role in the distribution of literature in association with Negro History Week during this initial interval, with the mainstream and black press aiding in the publicity effort.  Negro History Week was met with enthusiastic response; it prompted the creation of Black History Clubs, an increase in interest among teachers, and interest from progressive whites. Negro History Week grew in popularity throughout the following decades, with mayors across the United States endorsing it as a holiday.  

Black educators and the Black United Students at Kent State University in February 1969 first proposed black History Month. The first celebration of Black History Month took place at Kent State one year later, from January 2, 1970, to February 28, 1970.   Six years later, Black History Month was being celebrated all across the country in educational institutions, centers of Black culture, and community centers, both great and small, when President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month during the celebration of the United States Bicentennial. He urged Americans to "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history."  On February 21, 2016, Virginia McLaurin, a 106-year Washington D.C. resident and school volunteer, visited the White House as part of Black History Month. When asked by the president why she was there, McLaurin said, "A Black president. A Black wife. And I’m here to celebrate Black History. That's what I'm here for."

In the United Kingdom, Black History Month was first celebrated in 1987. It was organized through the leadership of Ghanaian analyst Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, who had served as a coordinator of special projects for the Greater London Council (GLC) and created a collaboration to get it underway.  It was first celebrated in London.  Canada’s Black History Month celebration began in 1995 after a motion by politician Jean Augustine.   Representing the riding of Etobicoke—Lakeshore in Ontario, Canada's House of Commons officially recognized February as Black History Month and honored Black Canadians. In 2008, Senator Donald Oliver moved to have the Senate officially recognize Black History Month, which was unanimously approved.  

Black History Month in the Republic of Ireland began in 2010.  Ireland's Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut notes: “Black History Month Ireland was initiated in Cork in 2010. This location seems particularly appropriate as, in the 19th century, the city was a leading center of abolition, and the male and female anti-slavery societies welcomed a number of Black abolitionists to lecture there, including Charles Lenox Remond and Frederick Douglass."

When first established, BHM resulted in some controversy.  Those who believed that black history month was limited to educational institutions questioned whether it was appropriate to confine the celebration of Black history to one month instead of integrating black history into mainstream education the rest of the year. Another concern was that contrary to the original inspiration for Black History Month, which was a desire to redress how American schools failed to represent Black historical figures as anything other than slaves or colonial subjects, Black History Month could reduce complex historical figures to overly simplified objects of "hero worship." Other critics refer to the celebration as a form of racism.  Actor and director Morgan Freeman and actress Stacey Dash have criticized the concept of declaring only one month as Black History Month. Freeman noted, "I don't want a Black history month. Black history is American history."  

Since its inception, Black History Month has expanded beyond its initial acceptance in educational establishments. By 2020, Black History month had become a focus beyond schools. The Wall Street Journal describes it as "a time when the culture and contributions of African Americans take center stage" in various cultural institutions, including theaters, libraries, and museums.  It has also garnered attention from the U.S. business community.  In February 2020, Forbes noted that "much of corporate America is commemorating" Black History Month, including The Coca-Cola Company, Google, Target Corporation, Macy's, United Parcel Service, and Under Armor. 

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