The Birth of Black History Month

Carter G. Woodson Mural, Washington, DC

It never fails. Every year during February, I hear some uninformed Black person complain about Black History Month. “Why did they give us February? It’s the shortest month of the year.” It never fails.

Here are some of the facts. Black History Month began as a weeklong commemoration 85 years ago, in 1926 when Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the “Father of Black History” education in this country, and the second Black man to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University, proposed to members of his Greek letter fraternity–Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc.–that a week be set aside each year to study and reflect on Black contributions to this society. Just a week, mind you.

That observance was first called “Negro History and Achievement Week,” by Dr. Woodson, who founded both the Journal of Negro History (now the Journal of African American History) and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). It was held from Feb. 11-17, because two seminal figures in Civil War history were born during that week. Pres. Abraham Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1809 and abolitionist and runaway slave Frederick Douglass was born on Feb. 14, 1818.

Black people put Dr. Woodson’s advice into practice. Eventually the observance outgrew one single week, and in 1976 the event was officially expanded to a month long observance, called Black History Month. So there.

February 2011 marks the 35th official observance of Black History Month in the U.S. The theme this year is “African Americans and the Civil War,” and it coincides with the 150th anniversary–on April 12–with the start of America’s bloodiest conflict.

“When the Civil War begins on April 12, 1861 it begins when they fired on Ft. Sumter (S.C.),” Frank Smith, Founding Director of the African American Civil War Memorial Museum told this writer.

“I’m sure they woke Pres. Lincoln up in the morning and he started worrying about how he was going to save the Union, to keep the country from being divided. The South was all fired up over starting a new country. They had elected themselves a president down there in Montgomery, Alabama, in Jefferson Davis.

“Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman and other Black people were singing ‘Hallelujah.’ We knew as soon as we heard the first shots of gunfire that we were going to get our freedom out of this war. Lincoln didn’t know it yet. Nobody else knew it yet, except Black people already knew this,” Mr. Smith continued.

“We’ve got the documents to prove that. We’ve got the words of Frederick Douglass. We’ve got the words of Harriet Tubman. We’ve got newspaper clippings–Black newspapers were printing back in those days.”

This year, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki also made note of the theme, saying in a statement that it serves as an opportunity to learn about the contributions made by Blacks during the Civil War. “It is difficult to look forward… as a Nation… if we do not take the time to know and understand this important chapter of our own history.”

Shinseki cited Sgt. William Harvey Carney of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of 209,145 Blacks who volunteered and served in the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War. Sgt. Harvey was the first Black recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor–the nation’s highest military honor–on July 18, 1863.

“So we have that much to show, that we ought to be looking at this, not only as something that produced the 13th and 14th Amendments that abolished slavery and made Black people citizens. It also made it possible for somebody like Barack Obama to get elected President of the United States,” Smith said.

“I’m hoping that our people can get to the point where we can say this,” said Smith: “We can say: ‘I know how this thing is going to come out. So, we ain’t worried about all these people who are deciding to do this (celebrate the Confederacy).’ We know we’re going to end up with one nation, indivisible. And we know we’re going to end up with one nation indivisible with slavery abolished.

So let’s stop complaining about what “they” did or did not give us, and let’s get busy doing something for ourselves, as others have done.

Let’s start making some of our own history, in this historic moment in time.

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