Photo courtesy of Library of Congress
While millions of Americans celebrate Black History Month every year, many would say that they have no idea how the observance began or who helped to push African-American history to the forefront of thousands of minds in February. According to MTSU Africana Studies Director Louis Woods, the history of Black History Month is just as important as that of leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Woods explained that the roots of Black History Month sprouted from the mind of African-American historian and author Carter G. Woodson.
“Essentially, he looked around at the curriculum,” Woods said. “He looked around at the society that was set up, and there was very little talking about anything positive about African-American culture or history. Traditional history, up to the 1950s and ‘60s, looked a lot like the original ‘Birth of a Nation’ movie. So people like Woodson, who were historians, were like, ‘What the heck? No. We need to promote an alternative narrative.’”
In response to the shortcomings in American culture, Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, which eventually became the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History.
“He created this organization with the goal of bringing in people from the community and celebrating academia and to promote the study of American-American history, culture and life,” Woods said.
Eventually this led to the creation of an annual celebration. Woodson supposedly picked February because it was the birth month of both Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, according to Woods.
“It started out as Negro History Week, and it wasn’t really nationalized until the Carter administration in 1976,” Woods said. “It took steam and took steam and eventually was celebrated in black schools and black communities.”
Woodson began promoting Negro History Week in 1926, which was designated as the second week in February. Years later, African-American students and educators at Kent State University coined the celebration as Black History Month in February 1970.
Woodson, who wrote several books throughout his life, authored “The Miseducation of the Negro” and believed that an annual celebration was necessary because of how biased and unproductive the education system was in regards to African-American history.
“His argument was, essentially, that students, through the standard curriculum in public schools, were not being properly educated,” Woods said.
This idea is something that, according to Woods, is still prevalent in modern society.
“I still ask students in history classes or in Africana Studies classes, ‘What’d you learn in K-12 about black people?” Woods said. “And, usually, if it’s a really good school, you may have like six things: slavery, civil rights or segregation, a handful of individuals like Dr. King and Rosa Parks and maybe Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass. And, that’s usually about it. That’s 13 years of history. It’s essentially one or two things every couple of years … And, this is better. This is improvements with a Black History Month in place for more than 40 years, and we still learn just a handful of things.”
In the 1940s, the NAACP attempted to combat the way that history textbooks portrayed African-Americans. Woods stated that these books mostly contained stereotypes of African-Americans rather than role models and accurate depictions.
“People of African ancestry have struggled with the curriculum for a while, and Black History Month was a way to try to supplement that on some level and to institutionalize that deficit,” Woods said. “Education is vitally important. If you’ve never seen somebody like you do something, you may think that you can’t do it. That’s true with anything.”
Woods said that other major organizations involved in popularizing Black History Month and combating miseducation of African-American history were publications such as The Crisis Magazine, which was under the editorial leadership of W.E.B. Du Bois in the early 1900s, and black newspapers like The Chicago Defender.
“(These publications) had celebratory things about blacks in education, historically black colleges, contributions that black people had made, poems and all kinds of literature,” Woods said.
Woods said that Black History Month is still critically important in lifting up new generations of African-American citizens.
“I think African-American history, maybe with the exception of Native American history, is the history that most profoundly reveals the distance between who we believe we are and who we’ve been as a country,” Woods said. “Not having role models readily available for students of color puts them at a disadvantage … I think Black History Month is still profoundly important, even today.”
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