Black History Month has been recognized every February for as long as many of us can remember, but too few are aware of how it all came to be. For that, we have to go all the way back to 1915 and a gentleman named Carter G. Woodson, a graduate of the University of Chicago, with a doctorate from Harvard, he is known as the “Father of Black History Month.”
During the summer of that year, he joined in a commemoration of emancipation in D.C. along with thousands of others and came away so inspired that he helped establish the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). One year later, he founded The Journal of Negro History. His mission: To promote the achievements of his people.
Seeking even greater impact, in 1924, he and several friends created Negro History and Literature Week, later renamed Negro Achievement Week. That was followed up with a press release announcing Negro History Week to be held in February.
That month was chosen in recognition of two influential men: Abraham Lincoln who, as president, led the nation through the Civil War years, and Frederick Douglass, a former slave and civil rights activist who was also the first black citizen to hold a high U.S. government rank.
The focus, however, was never on them, but on all the black men and women who contributed to society. Such efforts saw life gradually improving for blacks in America, and recognition of Negro History Week spread across the country. However, not until the 1940s did black history finally make its way into school books, thus furthering awareness. Finally, in 1976–six years after Woodson’s death–his Association for the Study of Negro Life and History–now 100 years—changed its name to the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History. ASALH then saw to it that not just one week was set aside but the entire month of February.
And every year since, both Republican and Democrat presidents have announced Black History Month’s annual theme. 2016’s is “Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African-American Memories.” As ASALH reminds us, “One cannot tell the story of America without preserving and reflecting on the places where African Americans have made history.”
Meanwhile, some of those notable places and the people involved in that history deserve special notice, starting way back to 1619 when the first African slaves arrived in Virginia and 1808 when Congress finally banned their importation. Then in 1861, the Confederacy was founded, the deep South seceded, and the Civil War began.
Two years later, President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation “freeing all persons held as slaves.” Nevertheless, the war did not end until 1865; at that time, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified prohibiting slavery. Reconstruction followed, and the 14th Amendment was then ratified nullifying the 1857 Dred Scott decision that held that Congress could not ban slavery and that slaves were not citizens. Three more years had to pass, however, before the 15th Amendment gave blacks the right to vote.
• 1869: Howard University became our first black law school.
• 1877: Reconstruction ended in the South.
• 1879: Spelman College, the first college for black women, was founded.
• 1879: Booker T. Washington founded the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama.
• 1896: The Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson held that racial segregation is constitutional.
• 1905: W.E.B. DuBois founded the Niagara movement, NAACP’s forerunner.
• 1909: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded.
• 1914: Marcus Garvey established the Universal Negro Improvement Association.
• 1947: Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking major league baseball’s color barrier.
• 1952: Malcolm X became minister of the Nation of Islam.
• 1954: Brown v. Board of Education declared that racial segregation is unconstitutional.
Despite such strides, the next year, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. Then, in 1957, nine black students were barred from entering Central High, and the National Guard had to be called in. History reminds us, too, that in ’63, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested and jailed during anti-segregation protests, but was awarded the Noble Peace Prize the very next year. He was assassinated in 1968.
That same year, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, Shirley Chisholm became the first black female U.S. Representative, and in ’83, Guion Bluford, Jr. was the first black in space. These developments then led us into the 21st Century:
• 2001: Colin Powell was named the first African-American U.S. Secretary of State.
• 2005: Condoleezza Rice became the first black female U.S. Secretary of State.
• 2008: Barack Obama was elected president of the United States.
• 2009: Eric H. Holder is named the first African-American to serve as U.S. Attorney General.
• 2015: There are 46 black members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 2 in the Senate.
If he could, today Mr. Woodson might say, “It’s about time.”