In 1976, President Gerald Ford decreed Black History Month a national observance. While this was the validation of the observance, how and why did this recognition begin?
In 1926 historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association of the Study of Negro Life and History, declared the second week of February to be “Negro History Week.” Woodson selected this month for this recognition because both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln celebrated their birthdays during February (Douglass – February 14th and Lincoln – February 12th).
Woodson witnessed how black people were underrepresented in the books and conversations that shaped the study of American history. According to the way many historians taught the nation’s past, African Americans were barely part of the story—a narrative that Woodson knew was not true. So in 1915, he and Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, or the ASALH). The organization would promote studying black history as a discipline and celebrate the accomplishments of African Americans. “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated,” Woodson said of the need for such study (“This is how February Became Black History Month, Julie Zorthian, Time Magazine, Jan. 2016).
In 2017, we continue to celebrate February as Black History Month, but African Americans and other minorities continue to be underrepresented in all areas of life, from the C-suite (CEOs) to the B- Suite (Billionaires). However, people of color are overrepresented when it comes to living a quality life. We are still faced with the elements of poverty; lack of education, homeownership, business ownership, living wage employment, crime, and what is now known as modern-day slavery, imprisonment.
So while we celebrate our history and the many gains we’ve made, let us not forget the struggle of the first 20 African slaves brought to North American colonies in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1916 to support the production of money making crops such as tobacco. Let us not forget that by the time of the American Revolution (1775-1883), the status of “slave” had been institutionalized as a racial cast; let us not forget the small number of freed African Americans who were male property owners were among the first voting citizens; let us not forget that even though slavery was prohibited in 1808, slavery continued. I encourage you to research the history of the African American’s journey and where we are today. So while we celebrate in various ways Black History Month, let us continue to work together to change laws, conditions, barriers that affect the quality of life for all, but especially African Americans.
That is what our goal is at the Akron Urban League. We were established in 1910 to address the aftermath of the Great Migration of people of color escaping Jim Crow Laws. Our goal was to support African Americans to find jobs and housing to sustain them and eventually participate in the “American Dream.” We continue this same work today, addressing 21st century needs. We ask you during this Black History Month, 2017, to join us in celebrating the victories of our past and to collaborate with us on our strategies and processes to shift our past into a promising future.