It is the middle of the busiest time of the year for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI)--Black History Month. From the Dr. King Holiday through the second week in March, thousands of people visit our facility and our Education Department conducts numerous presentations throughout the state and the region. We are happy to have each and every one of those visitors come and learn about the important story of the Civil Rights Movement. My staff and I enjoy sharing information about various topics for K-12 students, day cares, nursing homes, churches and the like. Having said all that, truth be told, I would rather not have Black History Month.
Let me explain. In a perfect world, the accomplishments of all Americans would be taught in schools and widely held as strict American History. African Americans have contributed in major ways to the American fabric over the 400-plus years they have lived here. However, that history, for various reasons, had mostly been obscured until the early part of the 20th Century. Let’s examine that time period for foundational purposes.
In 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson started “Negro History Week,” to bring attention to the accomplishments of Black Americans and to foster pride in a people who were unaware of their history. Woodson was born in 1875 to former slaves in New Canton, VA. Because their family was poor, Woodson was not able to regularly attend school. At the age of 20, he attended Douglass High School in West Virginia and gained his diploma in two years. Five years later, he would return to the school as the principal. He would later graduate from Berea College in 1907, serve as a school supervisor in the Philippines, and gain his Master’s Degree from the University of Chicago in 1908. Woodson would become the second African American to gain a PhD from Harvard University in 1912, following W.E.B. DuBois.
Woodson and Jesse Moorland founded the Association of the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915. This organization helped raise awareness about the accomplishments of the Black race. Woodson believed that publishing scientific facts about the Black race would prove to the world that Africa and its people have played an important role in the creation of civilization. Woodson initially chose the week of February 12 (Lincoln’s birthday) and February 14 (Frederick Douglass’ birthday) as the official Negro History Week. Woodson would write several books, including the seminal piece on Black History, The Mis-Education of the Negro in 1933. Negro History Week would become Black History Month during the bicentennial year of 1976. Woodson himself said that he longed for a day when a specific time honoring Negro history would not be necessary because America would have incorporated that history into its own. Unfortunately, that has not happened.
On a regular basis, BCRI’s outreach efforts uncover young people who don’t have basic knowledge of Black history. Through no fault of their own, our students do not know of the works of an Alain Locke, the spirit of a Bessie Coleman, people like Adam Clayton Powell, Shirley Chisholm, and Mary McLeod Bethune. There is no grasp of the scientific accomplishments of Ernest Everett Just, Garrett Morgan, Granville T. Woods, Lewis Latimer and Charles Drew. There is no account of the activism of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer and Shirley Sherrod. Somebody has to share this information and as uncomfortable as this will be for some people to hear, there are those among us who willfully obscure these things. There are people who don’t feel like any culture should have its own month. There are people who don’t think that African Americans have done enough to merit the attention. There are also people who could care less.
The beautiful thing about America is those folks can freely feel the way they feel. That does not change the necessity of having the knowledge in question. This is why Black History Month and other celebrations such as Hispanic Heritage Month, Women’s History Month, etc. are still necessary. The American story is built on the diverse groups of people who make up this country. That diversity is to be celebrated as a core tenet to American greatness. I don’t think I will see a time when there will not be a need for a Black History Month. However, I also never thought I would see an African American President either. Happy Black History Month!
Ahmad Ward is Head of Education and Exhibitions at BCRI