The Importance of Black History Month

February 23, 2016

BHM“Those who have no record of what their forebearers have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history”
-Carter G. Woodson

    In the year 1619, twenty Africans stepped off a Dutch ship in Jamestown, Virginia. That is when African American history began in the United States of America, and since then, African Americans have made a significant impact on our nation’s history. The fact that the bitterness and degradation of slavery was the only African American history being taught or disseminated was of great concern to Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Known as the ‘Father of Black History’, he believed Blacks should know their past in order to participate intelligently in the affairs of our country. He strongly believed that history—which others have tried diligently to erase—is a firm foundation for young Black Americans to build on in order to become productive citizens of our society.  (NAACP, para. 1)

In the summer of 1915, Dr. Woodson was in Chicago to participate in a national celebration of the 50th anniversary of the emancipation, sponsored by the state of Illinois. (Scott, 1/31/16) Inspired by the three-week celebration before leaving town, Woodson decided to form an organization to promote the scientific study of Black life and history. On September 9, Woodson met at the Wabash YMCA with A.L. Jackson and three others and founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. (Scott, 1/31/16) Dr. Woodson pushed for the celebration of African history with the intention that Blacks would know, understand, and be proud of their history. His work resulted in the celebration of Negro History Week. In time, this became Black History Week, and later in 1976, Black History Month.

Negro History Week was first celebrated in February 1926. Contrary to popular belief, February was not given to Blacks because it was the coldest or shortest month.  “Dr. Woodson chose February for reasons of traditions and reform.  It is commonly said that Woodson selected February to encompass the birthdays of two great Americans who played a prominent role in shaping Black History, namely Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, whose birthdays are the 12th and the 14th, respectfully. More importantly, he chose them for reasons of tradition. Since Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the Black community, along with other Republicans had been celebrating the fallen President’s birthday. And in the late 1890’s, Black communities across the country had been celebrating Douglas’s.  Woodson built Negro History Week around traditional days of commemorating the Black past. In doing so, he increased his chance for success.” (Scott, 2/31/16)

Initially, Dr. Woodson hoped that the dissemination of information on the achievements and accomplishments of Blacks would give young Blacks and other older Blacks a sense of pride for their people. He also hoped to get rid of the negative stereotypes of the majority community. His books and papers celebrated the achievements of great African Americans, but he also wanted others of the majority community to know and understand what African Americans had done to enrich and contribute to this country.

While it is good for Blacks to know their history, it is also good for others to know and understand this history. It is good for all people to know about Robert Smalls, a Black man, who during the civil war, commandeered a Confederate ship and sailed himself and 17 others to freedom. We should all know about Dr. Charles Drew and his work with the blood bank. We should all know about Garret Morgan with his gas masks used in World War I and his traffic light. Every little girl should know about Mae Jemison and her space ride. There are other scientists, inventors, writers, doctors and many others who have made contributions in every field.

This study is good for some who believed that the enslaved Africans were happy, docile, and offered no resistance; the study of history will show that there were between 250 and 300 attempted slave rebellions. Most know about Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and Gabriel Prosser, but there were hundreds more, including the Stono Rebellion in 1739. Although these slaves were very harshly punished and most often killed, others kept attempting to escape to freedom. Another way of resisting was to run away. Slaves were constantly looking for an opportunity to run. The Underground Railway was a perfect example of this. Other resistance examples were the daily resistance of breaking tools, sabotaging equipment, or tampering with food and the water supply.

The study and celebration of African American history is important to African Americans and also to Caucasians because it is an integral part of American History. Dr. Woodson hoped that in time we would not need a Black History Month because Black History would be taught in classes as American History. Until that happens, we still need to celebrate the accomplishments of African Americans during Black History Month and throughout the year.

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