February is Black History Month ... why observe such a special event?
Why should black history be a thing apart from our American history? The simple answer is that black history is American history and should be celebrated as such.
However, in 1926, when the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, the oldest fraternity established on black campuses, began the annual celebration of the literary achievements of black people, the times seemed to dictate the need for calling special attention to black history. Racism had reached its crest. American history either ignored the history of black folk entirely or reported it incorrectly. Carter Goodwin Woodson, a historian and honorary member of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, convinced the group that he could sponsor the observance more effectively under the auspices of an organization (The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History) that he had founded in 1915.
“Negro History Week” was observed principally in black schools in February as close as possible to the birthdays of Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, and President Abraham Lincoln, the emancipator. Woodson hoped to attract white interest as well as build black pride and erode white hate.
Carter G. Woodson, now called “The Father of Black History,” was born in 1875 in Virginia, the son of ex-slaves. He was too poor to afford an education and spent most of his youth working in the coal mines to help support the family.
He entered Douglass High School at 20 and was graduated with honors at 22. He attended Berea College in Kentucky and was graduated with honors again. In 1907 he received his B.A. degree from the University of Chicago and in 1908 his M.A.
He did graduate study at the Sorbonne in Paris and then became the second black to earn doctorate in history from Harvard University in 1912.
He was the first American to champion black history. He founded The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and edited and directed its quarterly, “The Journal of Negro History.” In 1920, he published the “Negro in Our History,” the first textbook of its kind. Before 1954, black scholars aspiring to become historians were barred from first-rate graduate schools. If they were fortunate enough to be admitted, they were often informed by their professors that the black past was not worth examining.
After graduation, in attempts to keep abreast of current research, black historians sometimes could not attend professional meetings because they were denied lodging and meals.
If they sought to use their skills in researching topics of black history, they were generally not allowed access to public libraries, national and local historical societies’ archives, or to the libraries of predominantly white colleges or universities.
With the civil rights revolution and the passage of civil rights laws came new breakthroughs, and black history began to take a central place in the study and writing of Americans of black heritage. More white schools offered courses in black history and recruited black graduate students and faculty. Both black and white doctoral candidates elected to write dissertations on subjects of black history, and foundations made grants available and encouraged such research. Some publishing companies developed black or Afro-American history as an area of concentration.
Today black scholars present major papers at historical association meetings and are elected to office in national, regional, local and special groupings of historians. Some have been appointed as chairmen of departments of history in major universities.
With time came other changes. With black pride came new identities. They began to refer to themselves as “black” or “Afro-American,” as does the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, which has substituted the word “Afro-American” for “Negro.”
There was a movement to refer to the black race as the Afro-American race. It should be pointed out that the term Afro is strictly a North American term. Blacks were called blacks by the Romans when they came to Africa. Later the Spanish changed the name to Negro, in reference to the Spanish word for black. The term Negro also came from the Niger River in Africa where blacks live. It wasn’t until blacks were brought to America to be slaves that the word “colored” was used. Originally the word “colored” spelled “coloured” — referred to the offspring of black slaves who were thought not to be truly black.
In 1816 the colonial society wanted to use the term Afro-American because it referred to religious ties to the African Methodist Episcopal Church. At this point, the first black convention was held and there was an argument as to what to call themselves — much as we are having today. They dropped African and decided to call themselves “coloreds” — hence came the colored soldiers and colored women’s groups.
It wasn’t until 1964 when Malcolm X emphasized the term Afro that it became popular to replace the word “colored” with Afro. In 1968, King popularized the term “black.”
During the bicentennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence in 1976, Black History Week was expanded to Black History Month. Today, black history, once a Jim Crow specialty in American historiography, and ignored by nearly the entire profession, is now becoming an integral part of American history. This is becoming real because one man, Carter G. Woodson, almost alone dared to challenge and let the whole world know that blacks were more than hewers of wood and drawers of water in the making of America.
While it is true that the free labor of slaves laid the very economic and industrial foundation of this great country, the story of blacks in America is also a combination of the tragic and the heroic, of denial and affirmation.
Because of six decades of observing black history, the role of blacks in this country is better known and more truthfully recorded today.