The History of Black History Month and Why We Need It

A Brief History Lesson

In 1915, 50 years after the passing of the 13th amendment to abolish slavery, Carter G. Woodson and Jesse E. Moorland founded what is today known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) to research and promote the achievements of Black Americans and other people of African descent. By 1926, the organization sponsored a national Negro History Week on the second week of February to align with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Many schools and communities were inspired to take this week to organize lectures, celebrations, and performances. However, it wasn’t until the late 1960’s that this week evolved into Black History Month on many college campuses. In 1967, President Gerald Ford recognized the month officially, and every U.S. president has done the same since.

Growing Up With Black History Month

As a white girl born in the 90’s, I am very familiar with school systems promoting Black History Month to some degree but have hardly felt its impact. In all honesty, as a child, I remember it feeling awkward. I felt bad for the few, if any, black students in my elementary school classes being put on display with an uncomfortable smile from my teachers. But as an adult, I wonder if those moments were one of few where those students felt recognized and valued by their school.

I had fun coloring in a portrait of Frederick Douglass in the first grade, but a month later I likely could have told someone he had been a president. But that type of misinformation is not unexpected from a first grader, or Donald Trump.

By middle school, I learned the names Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman. While these are certainly worthwhile people to learn about in regard to America’s history, it’s disheartening that the only time I had any person of color included in my curriculum was when the topic of discussion was slavery or the Civil Rights Movement. Surely, black history is more complex and rich than a slave’s fight for freedom, but that is all I was taught.

Black History Month as an Adult

It wasn’t until high school that I could grasp the real implications of racism, the relevance of American history to the discriminatory environment that exists today, and that I wanted to be an ally.

But I was also confused. Is Black History Month degrading? I don’t need a white history month because white history is already everywhere all year long. Is this just a band-aid solution to a wound that’s too deep? Ultimately, I do think an official Black History Month is necessary. In my own experience, I think schools could do a better job diversifying curriculum and putting more effort into including black history and literature year round, but I also can’t imagine how different learning about race as a child would have been, and as a result how much more ignorant the American population would be, if a month honoring Black History wasn’t promoted at all. But that’s just my opinion, and I still wasn’t sure how people of color felt. So, I did what I think all white allies should do: I asked black people about it. What I heard, for the most part, was a collective agreement: It sucks that we need it, but we do.

I also read a blog post last year where members of One Young World’s African American Ambassador community discussed what Black History Month means to them. Here are some of my favorite reflections:

“Until we live in a world where policies are not rooted in racial bias and prejudice, a celebration specific to a particular heritage will remain valuable. I view Black History Month as dedicated time to pause and appreciate all of the achievements of black people and to reflect on my own contributions as a black American. For me, celebrating Black History Month helps Black Americans to continue to be seen and celebrated when so much of our history and contributions have been erased and hidden.”  

—Mary Parker. Organizational consultant & Co-Founder, Just Collaboration

“In school I was taught a very troubling — and limited — version of American history. Much like what was reflected on TV, in publications, and so forth, “history” typically revolved around “white history.” …Honestly, I wish we didn’t need Black History Month — but I believe we do. It gives us a time and space to celebrate our heritage and our leaders, to unite around shared experiences and to channel our collective trauma into something beautiful and productive. It’s a reminder that our history could never be confined to anyone’s textbook anyway; for we are actively writing it every day.”  

—Lindsey Day. President & Editor-In-Chief, CRWNMAG

As a young adult, I understand that now it’s up to me to immerse myself in knowledge about black history, and beyond that, to learn more about what I can do to support people of color today. This month is a helpful reminder of my personal responsibility to ask questions, listen, learn, and get involved. I hope you do the same.

Rachel is a junior at Augustana college majoring in English. She is newly involved in writing and editing at Her Campus, a college buddy in the Best Buddies program, and won first place this year in College of Dupage's Writers Read creative writing contest for her piece "Finding a Voice".

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