Global Celebrations and Awareness: Black History Month
This is part of a series of articles we will share to help our audience become better informed about diverse holidays and celebrations happening across the globe throughout the year.
February 1st launches the month-long celebration of Black History, and it is a time to reflect on the history of not only the holiday, but also the triumphs and struggles of Black people in the United States.
The beginning of Black History Month
Dr. Carter G. Woodson is widely regarded as the father of Black History Month, and his story began in Chicago in the summer of 1915 where a celebration was being held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of emancipation sponsored by the state of Illinois. The three-week celebration hosted exhibits highlighting 50 years of Black progress since emancipation and the end of slavery and drew a crowd of six to twelve thousand people. Woodson was inspired by the celebration and decided to form an organization “to promote the scientific study of black life and history”.
Woodson, A.L. Jackson, and three others formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, ASALH) during a meeting at the YMCA on September 9, 1915. ASALH describes Dr. Woodson’s vision for the organization, and their continued mission to “represent a living testimony to the year-round and year-after-year study of African American history.” In 1916, Dr. Woodson launched The Journal of Negro History (now The Journal of African American History), one of the earliest scholarly journals publishing African American research, history, and book reviews.
Dr. Carter G Woodson sought to further expand and popularize the study of Black History and in 1926 established what he called “Negro History Week” which would take place during the second week of February. Woodson chose this specific week because it encompasses the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, whom Dr. Woodson viewed as American symbols of freedom. Additionally, by building this celebration around traditional days of celebrating Black History, his goal was not to create new traditions, but to expand upon and extend the study of Black History.
Throughout the 1920s Negro History Week became more mainstream in schools across the US but was mainly limited to Black neighborhoods and communities. As the demand grew for more education around Black history, culture, and literature, Black communities started to establish Negro History Clubs and new ASALH branches. By the 1960s, the broader public and more white communities became more engaged in these celebrations as well. In 1976, President Gerald Ford expanded the holiday to a full month aimed at honoring the contributions of Black Americans.
What is the legacy of Black History Month and Dr. Carter G. Woodson?
Dr. Carter G. Woodson always imagined that Black History would not be taught or celebrated in a one-week, or even one-month period. He urged for schools and community organizations to teach and celebrate throughout the entire year, and to use Negro History Week as a time to demonstrate learnings from the past year. He even established a Black studies extension program for adults that would allow them to learn continuously throughout the year. In this same vein, actor and director Morgan Freeman has criticized the concept of Black History Month noting, "I don't want a Black history month. Black history is American history."
The push for Black History to be full ingrained in American history has been a long and winding road. Much of Black History has been ignored or erased, and Black achievements and progress have been purposefully thwarted for centuries. The Black experience in America is unique and important and deserves attention.
Where does Black History fit in with “American History” today?
Currently, an AP Program on African American Studies is being developed and is set pilot in select U.S. high schools through 2024. According to the program, “the interdisciplinary course reaches into a variety of fields—literature, the arts and humanities, political science, geography, and science—to explore the vital contributions and experiences of African Americans."
There has been push back from some lawmakers on this course of study, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis leading the dissent, and students firing back with the threat of a lawsuit. You can examine the proposed syllabus for the course here.
Why is this AP course being developed? It is in part because the textbooks we grew up using have largely excluded or fabricated African American experiences in the United States. In an analysis of 220 history textbooks from 1832 to today, Harvard University Researcher Donald Yacovone notes that the “overwhelming majority” of textbooks “treated the introduction of African Americans in American society as a “problem.” The further you go into the 20th century, this almost Evangelical theme of “the problem of a Negro” and how much he needed to be controlled because he was so inept and ignorant became the guiding theme of American history textbooks.”
The formalized study of African American history is not something to fear or oppose; it is an incredible opportunity to rediscover our history through an inclusive lens. “A solid understanding of how African Americans have shaped America, its history, laws, institutions, culture and arts, and even the current practice of American democracy, sharpens all knowledge about our nation," says Dr. Nikki Taylor, Chair of the Howard University History Department.
With this knowledge, it is our responsibility to seek out inclusive histories and resources that recognize and give due attention to Black history. We are faced with the difficult tasks of acknowledging that we were taught a biased and inaccurate history in school, unlearning what we were taught to be the objective truth of the time and of America’s history, and making space for a true history that includes all people. The importance of teaching our kids the true history of how America was built cannot be overstated. Race, slavery, oppression, segregation, and the continued disenfranchisement of BIPOC Americans should not be uncomfortable topics. It is necessary for all of us to learn if we want a brighter future, free of hate and racism, and with equal opportunity for all.
How can we celebrate Black History, not just in February, but year-round?
Shop Black-owned businesses
Etsy allows you to filter your search for items from Black-owned shops
Good Housekeeping compiled a list of their favorite products and shops
And Columbus Navigator lists 82 Black-owned businesses in Columbus, OH.
Shop Black Owned has resources for Black-owned businesses in some of the larger cities (NYC, LA, Chicago, etc.) but you can also suggest other cities for them to catalogue
Find other companies by searching the #blackowned hashtag online
Learn about Black History and the numerous and significant contributions of Black Americans
Notable Black figures
Shirley Chisolm was the first Black woman elected to Congress.
Fannie Lou Hamer was an activist who launched Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC), an initiative to purchase land that Black people could collectively own and farm.
Madam C.J. Walker was the first female self-made millionaire in America, known also for her philanthropy, activism, and entrepreneurship.
Mae Jemison was the first Black woman to orbit into space aboard the shuttle Endeavour; she is a physician, teacher, Peace Corps volunteer, and currently works to get more young women of color involved in STEM careers.
Henrietta Lacks cells (which were taken without her consent) have been widely used in modern medicine to test the effects of radiation and poisons, to study the human genome, to learn more about how viruses work, and to develop the polio vaccine.
Do you value the peace of mind that your home security system provides? You have Mary Van Brittan Brown to thank for that. She co-patented the first home security system and many of today's home security systems still utilize elements from her original design.
Visit BlackPast.org for an extensive list of notable Black figures.
Additional history and events
Learn about Black Wall Street. In 1921 Tulsa saw a sharp rise in racial violence that resulted in the death of hundreds of residents, burned more than 1,250 homes, and destroyed Black Wall Street, one of the most prosperous Black communities in the United States, which erased years of Black success. Learn more from The New York Times, Ebony, and JSTOR
Learn Black History in just 5 minutes a day with the 28 Days of Black History newsletter (which starts today!)
Check out Black Culture Connection from PBS, which explores Black history and culture though films, stories, and voices across public media.
Fundraise, Donate, or Volunteer
Other grassroots organizations
Check out these ideas for group volunteer activities
Consider fundraising to purchase books about Black history and donating them to local schools
Read / listen to Black authors and creators
Edward E. Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told” takes an in-depth look at slavery’s role in the “evolution and modernization of the United States”
Amanda Gorman’s inauguration day poem
“The 1619 Project” provides a historical recounting of the role slavery played in the transformation of America. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and project creator Nikole Hannah Jones hosts a podcast that "dissects the link between slavery and American economics, the co-opting of Black musicians’ work, and the obstacles Black people faced with receiving healthcare and land ownership rights.”
The 100 greatest books ever written by African American women
Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019
Becoming (Michelle Obama’s memoir)
The Underground Railroad, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Colson Whitehead
A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn “ tells U.S. history from the point of view of — and in the words of — America’s women, factory workers, African-Americans, Native Americans, the working poor, and immigrant laborers.”
Ask if anyone in your organization wants to share or lead discussions on their lived experiences / history
Bring in speakers to facilitate discussion and create safe spaces*
This could be a lecture-style discussion with a subject matter expert sharing their knowledge, it could be a workshop series designed to engage employees in productive discussions, or something entirely different. The important part is bringing in outside perspectives and giving everyone the opportunity to learn and grow in this space. You could even consider a recurring speaker series where the organization brings in someone quarterly to lead discussions on important topics.
Practice inclusion and belonging daily in your organization*
Review your processes around hiring, firing, and promotions – are they equitable? Are there opportunities to remove unconscious bias from your processes?
Do you have an employee resource group (ERGs) that offers networking, mentorship, sponsorship, education, and a safe space for Black employees? If not, consider celebrating Black History Month by establishing a new ERG
Ensure that non-Black employees are also given access to resources for further learning and development around Black History
Implement supplier diversity goals and ensure that minority owned businesses have equal opportunities to work with your organization
Hold workshops on unconscious bias that will allow teams to break down barriers, collaborate, learn from one another, and work together
Talk about Black History Month at home
NatGeo Kids has extensive information and resources for kids on African American Heroes
The ABCs of Black History Month is a great resource for younger kids who prefer video learning
PBS Kids (For Parents) has a wonderful collection for introducing kids to Black History Month.
Children's books to celebrate Black History Month
The Minnesota Children's Museum has compiled additional resources "to help you talk with your children about race and racism, and raise kids who are empathetic, resilient and inclusive."
More books: Coretta Scott King Book Award Winners List
Attend events celebrating Black History Month
ASALH has a wonderful list of programming all month long, including several virtual options, aimed at educating on and celebrating Black History. See the full calendar of events here.
Additional events hosted by The Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum can be found here.
And don't forget to explore the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Join a virtual book club discussion on the book "I'm Still Here" by Austin Channing Brown on February 21st
*Level D&I offers solutions for learning and development (including training and workshops), ERG programming and support, diversity-and focused hiring. Reach out today for more information on how we can support and supplement your organizational culture.