Do you know the history of Black History Month? I think it’s fair to say most of us know about the contributions of well-known African Americans such as Rosa Parks, Booker T. Washington, and Martin Luther King Jr., but do we know the origin of the month? Realizing I didn’t (and feeling like I should), I began researching it. While I expected to only gain a history lesson, I was taken back and challenged by the depth of courage and resilience of African-Americans throughout history.
We owe the very existence of Black History Month to the life-work and vision of one man. His name is Carter Godwin Woodson. Born ten years after the Civil War to parents who were raised in slavery, Woodson is the first and only African American child of former slaves who attained a Ph.D. in history.
Because of Woodson’s parent’s history and the fact that they didn’t have the choice to be properly educated, they instilled in their children a hunger for education, a self-respect for how God made them, and a strong work ethic with high morals. Though Woodson was raised in poverty, he rose out of it through hard work and determination, eventually completing high school, college, and finally Harvard University.
It was through Woodson’s schooling that his eyes were opened to the extent of racism and the biased point of view of African-Americans in history taught by educators. Not only were African-Americans misrepresented, but their positive role was astonishingly absent from history altogether. Even some of Woodson’s professors blatantly taught that the African race was an inferior race. Woodson believed that because this was openly acceptable and taught by society, it had the power to control the minds of African-Americans, thus destructively indoctrinating them to accept the lie.
“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions,” Woodson said in his most popular book, The Mis-Education of the Negro. “You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.”
Though Woodson rarely exposed his emotional heart-ache for his people, it seems evident that what drove him was his passion to see African-Americans brought to the real “proper place” of humanity: a place of dignity and prosperity on a plain of equality in the world.
He believed the solution was to start by educating African-Americans of the truth of their history. If they could be enlightened of the numerous accomplishments and contributions their own people made, he imagined it would empower the minds and hearts of all African-Americans to not only better themselves but to pursue the infinite achievements they were capable of obtaining. By speaking out truth, it would set free the bound minds of not only his own people, but, he also hoped, the minds of all races in America.
And so, in 1926, Woodson started a week-long recognition of the accomplishments African-Americans made in history, called “Negro History Week.” Assigned to the second week of February to commemorate the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, “Negro History Week” was a stepping stone of a powerful movement that would peak to its height in the 1960s.
“We are not makers of history; we are made by history,” Martin Luther King Jr. told us in Strength to Love, explaining that throughout history most people tend to conform to the mass mind of their society, and in the case of America’s society at that time, it was a racism against African-Americans. But King had a dream to see Americans break that age-long cycle of conformity to become nonconformists; to see them transform their minds to understand that all people are created equal and should be treated in accordance. It was the peaceful fight that King led that, though it brought his own death, brought freedom to the minds of millions.
Because Woodson worked to preserve African-American history and enrich the education of African-Americans, he helped usher in a newness of life that produced some of the most influential Americans that ever lived, notably, the youngest American to ever receive a Nobel Peace Prize: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
And it was finally in 1976 during the United States Bicentennial that Woodson’s “Negro History Week” was emphasized and expanded into the entire month of February and became “Black History Month,” thus immortalizing Woodson as the “Father of Black History.”
This month is presented to all Americans to recognize the contributions, the accomplishments, the struggles and perseverance to obtain equality, and the respected place in our history, and in our Nation, that African-Americans have made. Their contributions have not only bettered their own people, but it has bettered our entire Nation as a whole.