Posted by on February 02, 2015 in Blog

By Eve Soliman
Winter Intern, 2015

This month AAI is celebrating Black History month by highlighting how African American leaders and their allies began a movement in the United States to secure the civil rights and equality of all people. With much struggle and adversity, the civil rights movement started by leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, and Thurgood Marshall has redefined the landscape of American society. From the election of Hiram Rhodes Revels in 1870 as the first African American Senator, to Ralph J. Bunche winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for his peace efforts involving Palestine, the black community has been an integral and inseparable part of our nation’s history.

Dr. Carter G. Woodson, known as the “Father of Black History,” dedicated his life to ensuring the acknowledgment of African Americans in the education system – an effort that paved the way for Black History Month to become an established celebration. Dr. Woodson was born to former slaves in 1875 and, despite the adversity he faced, went on to earn his PhD at Harvard. During his studies,  Dr. Woodson became concerned with the absence of African Americans from most history books, and the way the role of the community was drastically ignored or undermined through exclusionary tactics in academia. It was his belief that the systematic racism and social injustices that faced the black community were due to the mis-education of black people on their community’s historical contributions and significance. He described this as the “mis-education of the Negro” and felt the system was “using history as a weapon [because]…in history, of course, the Negro had no place in this curriculum.”

African Americans have been a fundamental part of the nation’s growth and history, yet documentation of their contributions was not formally taught until the 20th century. These discrepancies are what inspired Dr. Woodson to establish what is now known as the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History in 1915, which held annual meetings with boards of education and teachers to promote inclusionary and factual curriculum. In 1926, he founded "Negro History Week," held on the second week of February, to advance an educational agenda celebrating Black Americans’ contributions and establish legitimacy in the academic world and the nation as a whole. February was chosen not just because it holds both Fredrick Douglas’ and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays,  but because of the key equality milestones the month holds: the enactment of the 15th amendment, the founding of the NAACP, W.E.B. DuBois’ birthday and Hiram Revels’ campaign victory that made him the first African American elected to the United States Senate.

In 1976 President Ford issued the first Message on the observance of ”Negro History Week,”, setting a precedent for Black History Month. In 1986, Congress enacted Public Law 99-244 that marked February as a national celebration of Black History and President Reagan responded with the Presidential Proclamation 5443 that implored the people of the U.S. to observe Black History Month with appropriate celebrations and activities.

The larger challenge of getting the national government to recognize black history and the black struggle was a tremendous milestone in the Civil Rights Movement towards equality and recognition. The dialogue in which Black History Month is framed must be one of inclusion, not marking black history as a separate entity from American history, but acknowledging that black history is American history.

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