The Origin of Black History Month & Its Impact

The story of Black History Month has yet to be fully researched or written. For most of my life the history of Black History Month has been obscure, to say the least. Forty nine years after it’s inception it’s history is still unknown to most people. Even the most erudite scholars cannot answer the question of who, when, where or why it was started.

Everyone can agree on the fact that it was Carter G. Woodson that created Negro History Week as a promotional effort for the study of “Negro History” in public schools. In 1926, the year of the first celebration of Negro History Week, the idea that Negro people had a history was considered ludicrous. The idea that Negroes had no history was just as ludicrous to Carter G. Woodson. He had studied it, written about it and even founded an organization dedicated to the study of Negro history. His organization, headquartered in Washington, D.C., was called the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH).

For decades, Woodson and the ASNLH led a movement to legitimize the study of Black history, particularly in public schools. Negro History Week was his primary promotional tool. He used it to open the school house doors and introduce people to an idea that had not been part of their curriculum, when they were in school. As a teacher, I realize how difficult this is, because teachers do not like change, no matter how many lectures, seminars or workshops they attend, touting the latest educational innovations, unless they think it will make their jobs a lot easier.

He picked the month of February, because two people claimed that month as the month of their birth, Frederick Douglass (2/14) and Abraham Lincoln (2/12). The first celebration was a low key affair, but it seemed like a worthwhile prospect. Every year since, the ASNLH created a theme for the week and sent promotional all over the country.

So, how did this one week celebration become a month long affair? For that innovation we have another pair of educators to thank, Dr. Edward W. Crosby and Dean Milton Wilson. In the year 1970, these 2 administrators, in conjunction with the Black United Students, organized the first celebration of Black History Month, in the USA. In October of 1969 Kent State’s Black Cultural Center, the Kuumba House was founded. The founding of Kuumba House was one of a series of demands the Black United Students made, after their exodus from the Kent State campus on November 18, 1968.

The university did not approve of their methods and certainly did not like the publicity garnered from their walkout en masse. So, they gave the students the ricketiest building on campus for their cultural center, in the hope that their interest in a cultural center was a fleeting thing and the whole matter could soon be forgotten. The students did not forget and continued to make their demands known. Young African Americans were making demands for Black Cultural Centers all over the country. Prior to the late 60’s the word black was a term of derision, much as nigger is today. To describe oneself as Black, with a capital B, was a revolutionary act, in and of itself. Dean Wilson documented the celebration of Black History Week at Kent in 1969, with little to no fanfare. I’ve yet to find one article or ad in the Daily Kent Stater to verify his statement. It was during this Black History Week Celebration that Dean Wilson spoke to a graduate student named Nelson Stevens and the director of Minority Affairs, Donald Thigpen about the idea of claiming the entire month of February as Black History Month. Apparently, they seconded his idea and he put it on the Kent’s university calendar for 1970. Thus, Black History was born.

That first celebration put Kent on the map, as a center of Black culture, with guest speakers by such national luminaries as Jimmy Garrett, then director of the Center for Black Education; Chief Fela Sowande, professor of African Philosophy and world renowned African musician; Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks; world renowned leader of Drums of Passion and founder of the 1st Center for African Culture in the US, Babatunde Olatunji; poets Quincy Troupe and Eugene Redmond, just to name a few. For the first time one entire month was dedicated to the celebration of Black culture, history and heritage. Black History had arrived in Kent in a big way. Sponsored by the Black United Students, the recently founded Institute for African American Affairs, directed by Dr. Crosby and the Center of Human Relations, directed by Dean Wilson the nature of life at Kent State changed forever.

What many did not realize at the time is the impact this series of events would have on the world, for today Black History Month is not a local phenomenon, its gone international with celebrations occurring in Canada, the UK, the Republic of Ireland and beyond.

Over the last 49 years Black History Month has remained controversial, with some people questioning if it’s even relevant anymore. As a school teacher I can say, without a doubt, it’s not only relevant, it’s needed more than ever. Typically, the criticism I’ve come across is from senior citizens who may or may not “know their history,” but definitely feel comfortable in their own skin. Unfortunately, our youth know very little about Black History. When I say our youth, I’m talking about all children, regardless of race or ethnicity. They truly don’t have a clue. Having a time set aside for intense focus on the history of Black people, at home and abroad is of the utmost importance in achieving political and economic balance. Black History is need now, more than ever as our history is being boiled down to the “story of Martin Luther King.” There’s so much more to our history than the life of one man. His story is important, but it should not be the only story our children know.

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