From The Grio — Every February 1st, it happens like clockwork. Folks complain. On Twitter and Facebook, in idle chatter before meetings and around the water cooler someone wonders aloud why there has to be Black History Month.
People write letters to editors decrying that they have to explain to their children why there is no “White History Month.” Then, they insist that if the idea of white history month is racist, then black history month must be racist too. Many of these conversations do not end well.
As a historian of African-American history I could get upset at these comments. I could suggest that they survive the middle passage, endure intergenerational slavery, fight for emancipation, and start their own history organization in the midst of Jim Crow segregation. Then they can honor their own history makers who were ignored by mainstream history books. They can follow that up by getting to work planning annual conferences to encourage more research and unearth new generations of scholars. Then if they can keep that tradition alive for almost a hundred years they’ll be able to pick a month to celebrate that history to remember what’s been accomplished and reflect on what more needs to be done.
But I don’t.
When I’m asked about Black History Month, I usually tell them about its founder, Carter G. Woodson. Woodson, the second African-American to graduate with a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University, believed that African-Americans had to understand their own history in order to effectively contest segregation and disfranchisement.
Inspired by the semi-centennial celebration of the general emancipation, Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) in 1915. Woodson’s organization hosts annual conferences where researchers can share their new findings. In order to share historical discoveries with the public at large, Woodson began to promote the celebration of Negro History Week in 1926. Choosing February to coincide with the celebration of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, Negro History Week was Woodson’s attempt to make sure that black Americans knew about the range of important figures, movements, and events that had shaped African American’s march toward freedom.