The Untold Story of Black History Month

The true origins of Black History Month have been shrouded in mystery long enough. Painstaking research has revealed “Negro History Week” and Black History Month are about the same as a Cadillac and a Ford. On February 15th, 2020 Kent State University will officially recognize the role Kent State’s Black students, faculty and staff played in establishing Black History Month as an annual nationally recognized event. The event will take place in Cartwright Hall from 3-6 pm and will feature Dean E. Timothy Moore, emeritus professor and Dr. Silas Ashley; the current Director of the Department of Pan-African Studies, Dr. Amoaba Gooden and Kent State’s 13th President, Dr. Todd Diacon.

BIRTH OF A NATION - FIRST TIME IN SOUND“Negro History Week” was founded 10 years after the premiere of “The Birth of a Nation” (AKA “The Clansman”). “Birth of a Nation” was considered to be an accurate representation of Negro History, even though many of the “Negroes” were actors in blackface, portraying stereotypically lazy, wicked Negroes.

Annual screenings of “The Birth of a Nation” and minstrel shows, with performers in blackface were the norm at schools across the country, including Kent. Ironically, the last performance of blackface minstrelsy was on February 1st, 1985 in E. Stump Theatre and produced by Kent’s School of Theatre. Black veterans interested in coming to Kent could apply for accommodations in the dorms, but were always denied. In fact, housing anywhere outside Kent’s fledgling ghetto, on the Southend was impossible. The Robinhood, a popular spot across the street from Kent’s main gate, had a “no Negro rule.” Even Oscar Ritchie, the only Negro professor at Kent, had to live in Canton, Ohio. Things were so bad that Dr. Ritchie engaged in civil protests over the citywide policy.

Before he left this mortal realm Dr. Milton Wilson was hired as an assistant professor in psychology. From 1964 to 1968 Milt Wilson and Dr. Oscar Ritchie were the only Black faculty members, on an otherwise segregated campus.

Dr. Wilson was fast tracked to a position as Dean of Human Relations, following the Black Student Walkout of 1968. He was a dean “without portfolio”, for there was no department of Human Relations. It appears that his real task was to keep the natives at bay and act as their spokesperson. 

The students had a set of demands, which included a Black Cultural Center and a Black Studies Department. The administration did not want to accede to either demand, so they looked for ways to stall for time.

DR CROSBY & DR WILSON & NAME TAG

When they hired Dr. Edward W. Crosby to create a Black Studies Department they thought they had someone they could easily manipulate, far from it. Dr. Crosby decided to work with the students in helping them achieve their goals. The first Black History Month celebration came about as a result of this clash of ideologies and cultures. Black students like Dwayne White, Erwind Blount, Carl Gregory and others worked in tandem with Dr. Crosby to create  three institutions, which included a Black Studies Department, Black Cultural Center and Black History Month. 

INVOLVEMENT 2 YEARS LATER COVERIn Dean Wilson’s Involvement 2/Years Later he mentions an aha moment he had when talking to graduate student Nelson Stevens at a “Negro History Week” celebration, in 1969. However, there’s no record of such an event occurring, except in 1955. However, both of them were present for Malcolm X Day on February 25th, 1969. Could this be where Dean Wilson’s aha moment occurred? 

On February 2nd, 1970 the first celebration of Black History for an entire month anywhere took place, in Kent, Ohio. The event was sponsored by the Institute for African American Affairs, Black United Students and the Center for Human Relations. 

“Negro History Week” was typically celebrated in the segregated schools of the south. Northern schools, segregated or not, did not celebrate “Negro History Week.” There’s nothing on record about riots in schools over “Negro History Week,” ostensibly because they were relegated to the segregated schools of the south. 

The historical record gives us a very different picture when it comes to Black History Month. There were a number of issues with Black History Month. The word Black, in the late 60’s was considered to be radical. To call oneself Black or demand others describe you that way were fighting words. Many did not like being called Black, while others didn’t like having to call Negroes Black. Even though the Chicago Style Manual clearly leaves open the option of using Black with a capital “b,” most editors continue to leave it uncapitalized. 

BLACK WATCH BULLETIN BOARD
Black Watch bulletin board in the Center of Pan-African Culture from the 1970’s

Secondly, there was an issue with bringing all this “unauthorized” and therefore “fake” history into a setting with Whites who typically denied the facts, even when there was a ton of evidence contradicting the accepted history of many scientific inventions, etc. 

Last, but not least is the issue of not just having to deal with this type of activity for 1 day/year, but for an entire month. Everyone knows what happens if you “give a mouse a cookie.” Imagine what would happen if you “gave a Negro a month,” Black History might just become real history.

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