When it came to recognizing both the struggles and accomplishments of African Americans, there was a tremendous void for many years in U.S. history textbooks. As a matter of fact, the role of black people in American history was often absent or inaccurately represented in educational settings.
In the 1920s, Dr. Carter Woodson identified this deficit and sought a way to remedy it. Only the second African American to receive a Ph.D from Harvard University, Dr. Woodson instituted Negro History Week in 1926.
His vision? To encourage U.S. schools to present a balanced view of history by including African Americans in the national conversation.
“This is the meaning of Negro History Week. It is not so much a Negro History Week as it is a History week. We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice. There should be no indulgence in undue eulogy of the Negro. The case of the Negro is well taken care of when it is shown how he has influenced the development of civilization.”—Carter Woodson, “The Celebration of Negro History Week, 1927,” Journal of Negro History, April 1927
In 1976, Negro History Week was expanded into a month by President Gerald Ford’s February 10th decree:
IN THE Bicentennial year of our Independence, we can review with admiration the impressive contributions of black Americans to our national life and culture...
To help highlight these achievements, Dr. Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. We are grateful to him today for his initiative, and we are richer for the work of his organization.
Freedom and the recognition of individual rights are what our Revolution was all about. They were ideals that inspired our fight for Independence: ideals that we have been striving to live up to ever since. Yet it took many years before these ideals became a reality for black citizens.
The last quarter-century has finally witnessed significant strides in the full integration of black people into every area of national life. In celebrating Black History Month, we can take satisfaction from this recent progress in the realization of the ideals envisioned by our Founding Fathers. But, even more than this, we can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.
I urge my fellow citizens to join me in tribute to Black History Month and to the message of courage and perseverance it brings to all of us.
It took 50 years for Dr. Woodson’s vision to be nationally recognized by President Ford. Nevertheless, even in 21st century America, it is still greatly needed.
Consider how few Americans knew about the amazing achievements of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson–who were wonderfully featured in the recent book and film Hidden Figures in 2016. And while it was a sober reminder of how African Americans are still being underrepresented in the retelling of American History, it demonstrates the continued importance for schools to pause and reflect on how they can incorporate the stories of these forgotten image-bearers of God and their contributions that are very much an important part of our story as well.
That is why I believe it is vital for schools to intentionally honor and celebrate Black History Month each year. This is done best when it (1) supports and ties into a school’s existing curriculum (adding a layer to what is being taught), (2) encourages school families, and (3) increases students’ others-centered orientation.
Q: Why did Dr. Woodson–“the father of black history”–chose the 2nd week of February?
A: To honor the birthdays of two of the greatest abolitionists in American history—Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Thankfully, many schools today are intentionally and thoughtfully including the history, both painful and celebratory, of Black Americans. These truths, and the studies and instruction connected to them, intentionally create an educational environment that honors everyone as image-bearers of God.
As we reflect on the importance of this month, let me close with the words of Frederick Douglass in his 1894 speech entitled “Blessings of Liberty and Education”—and the purpose he saw for education as well: “Education means emancipation…It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth.”
Douglass addressed the cry of both the abolitionist and civil rights movements in righting the wrongs of “mankind”—proclaiming the ideal that we are all image-bearers of God. “The great battle was won,” stated Douglass, “not because the victim of slavery was a negro, mulatto, or an Afro-American, but because the victim of slavery was a man and a brother to all other men, a child of God, and could claim with all mankind a common Father, and therefore should be recognized as an accountable being, a subject of government, and entitled to justice, liberty and equality before the law, and everywhere else.”
I pray that we will all learn from these lessons of history and remember to treat each other as image-bearers of God every day of the year—as this is what Heaven will look like!
And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” –Revelation 5:9-10