Today marks the beginning of Black History Month 2011.
This year’s theme is African-Americans and the Civil War:
“This year’s theme “African Americans and the Civil War” honors the efforts of people of African descent to destroy slavery and inaugurate universal freedom in the United States. The theme, chosen by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History urges all Americans to study and reflect on the value of their contribution to the nation.”
The theme is a little bit perfect, considering last December’s foolishness in South Carolina.
I spent most of the afternoon working up material on the history of the month. There is nothing here that a saavy internet researcher couldn’t find on his or her own (as such, many thanks to the Library of Congress and ProQuest Historical Newspapers for the help and guidance). Here are some of the drafty tidbits:
Established in 1926, it was originally called “Negro History Week,” and was meant to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb 12) and Frederick Douglass (in theory Feb 14). The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History—which Woodson was then founder and director of—issued a pamphlet where Woodson noted:
“If a race has no history, if it has no worth-while tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The case of the negro may be stated concretely. Prejudices against him are the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind. The doctrine has been thoroughly drilled into the whites, and the negroes have learned the lesson well themselves. “While many of them look upon other races as superior and accept the status of recognized inferiority, the fact is that one race sets forth its virtues while disparaging those of the other, so that the history taught to the youth of today is ascribed to one particular stock.”
That first year, Negro History Week celebrations occurred at Randall High School in Washington D.C. and included Dr. Leo Hansberry of Howard University, Dr. Woodson himself, and Mrs. Gabrielle Pelham, a community center secretary and honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Recitals and debating forums were held, sermons were preached, and curriculum related to African-American history were circulated to teachers for use that week. By the 1930s and 1940s, newspapers like the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor, were taking note of celebrations in New York City, Boston, Birmingham, AL, in Atlanta, GA, and Tuskegee, Alabama, to name a few.
Celebrations differed. Many highlighted famous figures like Phillis Wheatley or Benjamin Banneker. But some highlighted the accomplishments of those with “ordinary jobs—miners, carpenters, cooks, maids, chauffeurs” (“Negores Honor Ordinary Jobs.” Christian Science Monitor, 14 February 1939, 1). Libraries created special exhibits and displays in honor of the week. Some schools devoted the time to studying black arts and letters. Others to African history. And still others to the period of slavery in the U.S.
Until the 1950s, Negro History Week remained the purview of schools and institutions in the U.S. South. And while it drew on professors from historically black colleges and universities, with the exception of Howard University, many of these institutions did not make a special point to celebrate it. Until his death in 1950, Woodson complained about black universities refusing to take pride in their own history.
Woodson originally emphasized the creation of a week that would highlight black achievement and scientific accomplishment without making a direct comment on the contemporary plight of blacks in the sharecropping and segregated South. Woodson, a Harvard Ph.D. along with his contemporary, W. E. B. DuBois, was attempting to give credence to black history in the same climate where historians could state quite calmly that slavery was a benign institution (U. B. Philips).
Over the latter-half of the twentieth century, the purpose and motivation behind the week continued to evolve. By the 1960s, the issue of commemoration became a painful and sensitive one. The anniversaries of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael’s exposition of Black Power, and even the use of the word “Negro” became contentious debates inside and outside the black community. And those historically black colleges and universities who once upon a time shunned black history week, became caught in the political events of the 1960s. Alongside parents, teachers, and organizers, these students protested.
In the 1960s and 1970s, schools across the urban North—Detroit, New York, Chicago—encouraged in part by professors, activists and teachers who grew up with Negro History Week, marched in protest against school boards who did not make a concerted effort to celebrate the week itself or African American history in general.
Despite, presidential procalmation in 1976, that not only added support for the week but expanded it to a month, and presidential statements every year since, some school districts did not celebrate it at all. In South Carolina, according to Michael Prince, in the 1980s and 1990s, racial violence flared up most during the months of February. On the other hand, also in the 1990s, black educators in Atlanta questioned the need for Black History Month at all—instead encouraging schools to emphasize African American history in all of their courses and over the course of the entire year. They felt a week or a month of commemoration “ghettoized” black history…
Just gonna leave all that up there.
Besides the fact that I have no business sticking my academic nose in centuries where I don’t belong, how are we feeling about black history month 2011?