February is Black History Month, an annual celebration of the rich cultural heritage of African Americans, and a time to recognize the many contributions and sacrifices they made that helped shape the United States.
To learn more about the history of the month, The Daily sat down with Randy Blackford, senior assistant director for multicultural education and outreach in the Office of Multicultural Affairs.
Blackford, who joined Case Western Reserve University in 2008, hopes the university community will take steps to understand and pursue the complicated history of African Americans in the United States—as well as Black History Month itself—with a much more inclusive lens.
1. Black History Month began as only one week.
Dr. Carter G. Woodson, son of former slaves and the second African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard, established Negro History Week in 1926. Building on the already celebrated February birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (12th) and Frederick Douglas (14th), Woodson hoped the public would extend their interest past these two individuals to the broader culture of African Americans.
Negro History Week gained significant momentum during the ‘60s, and it was our Northeast Ohio neighbors—the Black educators and Black United Students (BUS) at Kent State University—that first celebrated Black History Month in 1970.
However, the first recognition by the federal government didn’t come until our bicentennial in 1976 when President Ford finally recognized the longer monthly celebration. Still, Congress took another 10 years to pass the “National Black History Month” into law in 1986, and a presidential proclamation was signed authorizing it by President Reagan.
2. Black History Month goes beyond the borders of the U.S.
Canada and Germany celebrate Black History Month in February along with the U.S. But Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom host their own Black History Month celebrations in October. Brazil celebrates Black Consciousness Day on November 20. While these celebrations in other countries began by focusing on African Americans from the U.S., they have evolved to focus on their own members of the larger African diaspora.
3. Black history doesn’t begin with slavery or end with the Civil Rights Movement.
While slavery and the Civil Rights Movement may be the most recognizable subjects to begin and end Black History Month, Carter Woodson advocated for study of Black history to connect with Africa, far beyond the relationship with the U.S. Woodson hoped to connect students with the history of significant African civilizations and their many accomplishments to world history.
In his 2017 PBS documentary “Africa’s Great Civilizations,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. shares some of the many achievements of African civilizations: the birthplace of art, music, iron technology, agriculture, systems of laws, and one of the earliest written languages. Each of these established part of the foundation for our current society.
In addition to learning about history prior to slavery, we need an understanding of the present beyond the ’60 Civil Rights era. Without going past the popularized successes and key figures of the Civil Rights Movement, students may struggle to understand the depth and context of #BlackLivesMatter and other contemporary struggles like police brutality or environmental racism.
4. It’s about much more than popular celebrities, Civil Rights heroes, or other ‘did you know’ factoids.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was second only to Mother Teresa on Gallup’s 1999 survey of the most admired individuals of the 20th century. But for far too many of us who may post quotes and pictures of him during this month, that’s the only context in which we understand him—as a culturally popular figure. However, when he was assassinated in 1968, his public disapproval rating was almost 75% and many even blamed him for his own death. Clearly, there was much more to him than having a dream, including his choice of issues in the years after the march on Washington: housing segregation in the north, opposition to the Vietnam war, and the Poor People’s Campaign.
Misinformation about Black history is nothing new. Early on, Negro History Week worked to counter was myths of the south’s “Lost Cause,” or how happy and well-treated enslaved Africans had been prior to the Civil War. Carter Woodson established what would become ASALH (The Association for the Study of African American Life & History) to help counter and correct lies and misinformation.
Since 2021, 36 states have introduced bills or taken other steps to restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism. There is clearly still a need to go past the famous-firsts we may have read about and work toward a much more authentic grasp of Black history in the U.S.
5. It’s an invitation for a yearlong pursuit.
When he established Negro History Week, Carter Woodson actually had hopes that the week would eventually be eliminated. He spoke of a shift from Negro History Week to “negro history year.”
Today, Henry Louis Gates Jr. exhorts that, “Every day should be Black History Month.” And that’s our invitation—to take steps outside the shortest month of the year and help connect the facts we may know with the challenges of today.
- Small steps: Go past “I Have a Dream” to understand concepts like “redlining” and the “racial wealth gap.” Or, research Fort Mose, the first free black settlement in what is now the U.S., and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the “Godmother of Rock ‘n Roll.”
- Medium steps: View Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s documentary series “Africa’s Great Civilizations” and deepen your understanding on the history of Africa.
- Large steps: Visit the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C., and discover our nation’s history through the African American lens.