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Black History Month—Then and Now

Some 50 years after the 13th amendment abolished slavery, noted historian and pioneer, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, planted the roots for what would one day become Black History Month, also known as African American History Month. Today, this month-long celebration pays tribute to the African American men and women who, through their efforts and determination, made the world a better place.

Let's take a look at the birth of this historic month and how cities, organizations, and countries around the world are honoring these heroic individuals.

The History of Black History Month

Known as the "Father of Black History," Dr. Carter G. Woodson authored several books on the many positive contributions made by African Americans throughout history. While others were attempting to erase the terrible atrocities committed on this segment of America's population, Woodson believed that Blacks needed to understand their past in order to become productive citizens and create a better future. According to Woodson, "Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history."

Woodson knew his share of hardship. Both his parents were former slaves who could neither read nor write, and his family experienced extreme poverty and racism in a poor county in Virginia. His father, however, was strong in his convictions, once telling his son, "Learning to accept insult, to compromise on principle, to mislead your fellow man, or betray your people, is to lose your soul."

As the oldest of nine children, Woodson was unable to attend school on a regular basis due to his need to help on the family farm. He entered high school at the age of 20 and went on to travel throughout Asia and Europe, ultimately earning his PhD in history from Harvard University. William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Dubois had received the same degree 17 years earlier, the first African American in history to receive a PhD from Harvard. Woodson became the second.

In 1915, Woodson and a few friends formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). Fourteen years later, he announced the first annual Negro History Week. His goal was to focus not only on the famous, but also on the everyday African American men and women that had made a significant impact and contributed to the advancement of civilization.

The response to Negro History Week was more than Woodson anticipated. Teachers requested information and clubs formed across the U.S. Branches of the ASNLH began spreading across America. In 1972, ASNLH was changed to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), an organization that currently has 50 branches in 23 states.

In 1969, Black United Students, an organization at Kent State University, along with black educators, proposed replacing Negro History Week with Black History Month. By 1976, month-long celebrations had spread across the U.S. Educational institutions focused on the accomplishments of African Americans. That same year, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month, calling on people to "Seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history."

Today, Black History Month is celebrated throughout the U.S., United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland, and Canada.

Celebrations During Black History Month

Celebrations and discussions have reached far beyond schools. Theaters, museums, libraries, and other institutions have prepared programs devoted to this year's theme, "Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity."  This topic explores the African diaspora, the voluntary and involuntary movement of Africans and their descendants to different parts of the world, and the spread of Black families across the U.S.

In light of the current pandemic, digital interactive programs as well as book discussions are offered through the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History. The ASALH is also offering the Black History Month Virtual Festival. Several free events are scheduled on their YouTube channel, ASALH TV.

Oiada International, a nonprofit organization located in West Africa that provides educational and experiential programs, is offering two video conferencing events, Tour of the Cape Coast Slave Dungeon and the Eye Opener Session. The Chicago Children's Choir is performing a Black History Month Virtual Concert: Preserving and Persevering. This event explores the cultural power of Black music.

The Future

In 1940, Woodson wrote, "Do not let the role which you have played be obscured while others write themselves into the foreground of your story."

Then and now, Black History Month is not without controversy. Many, including its founder, believed the history and contributions made by African Americans should not be crammed into a certain time frame. Woodson's hope was that the information passed on during Negro History Week would be taught year-round and implemented into curricula on an ongoing basis. Someday, he hoped, an annual celebration would no longer be needed as the contributions of Black individuals would be integrated into the country's history.  

Morgan Freeman, an advocate of commemorating African Americans throughout the year, said, "I don't want a Black history month. Black history is American history." In 2009, he went on 60 Minutes and shared his belief that to stop racism, we need to stop talking about it. "I am going to stop calling you a white man and I'm going to ask you to stop calling me a black man."

Today, African American people continue to make tremendous changes in the lives of those they've touched. Some will remain nameless, individuals that offer their families and communities a helping hand and stand up for their deeply ingrained principles of faith, freedom, and fairness.

Then there are those whose names have been etched into our history—the history of America. One of these is Mari Copeny.

Mari Copeny is a young woman from Flint, Michigan. She was eight years old when she wrote to President Obama to ask for a meeting with him in order to discuss the water crisis in her hometown. In 2016, President Obama visited Copeny in Flint and brought national attention to the crisis that had deeply affected her community. Ultimately, the President authorized $100 million to help fix the water problem. When Amy Poehler's Smart Girls spoke with Copeny, she told them, "When people see me, a ten-year-old helping others, they sometimes want to be able to help others too…Never let anyone tell you that you can't change the world because you can."