Black History Month: Past, Present, Future
by Andrea Griffith Cash
In February our nation celebrates Black History Month, also called African American History Month. This annual observance commemorates African Americans’ achievements and honors their central role in shaping U.S. history.
How It Began
The tradition of Black History Month began 95 years ago through the efforts of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who has been called the father of Black history. A Harvard-trained historian and the son of former slaves, Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASALH), which conceptualized Negro History Week in 1925.
The first event was celebrated during the second week of February 1926. This specific timeframe was selected as it contained the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. In response to the first Negro History Week, Black history clubs were formed, teachers sought instructive materials for their students, and many progressives stepped forward to support the endeavor.
Beyond the Classroom
Woodson’s inspiration for founding Negro History Week was in part a response to how Black people were underrepresented in American history books and instructional materials. He wanted to help educators coordinate their focus on the topic. Black History Month continues to provide teachers and students with insight and inspiration about African Americans’ contributions throughout U.S. history.
Since 1976 every U.S. president, beginning with Gerald Ford, has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month. Other countries, including Canada, the Netherlands, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, also devote a month each year to honoring Black history.
Today Black History Month is celebrated not only in school settings but also in museums, theaters, libraries, on social media, and in corporate environments. As more organizations commit to making diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) a central part of their infrastructure, expect to see more widespread commemorations during the month-long observance.
Black History Month 2021
The theme for this year’s Black History Month is “Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity.” Events this year will explore the African diaspora and expansion of Black families across the United States.
The ASALH website offers details on this year’s Virtual Festival, which honors the strengths, struggles, resistance, and perseverance of the Black family.
The festival features scholars, authors, chefs, educators, musicians, activists, and even a panel discussion with divers who preserve Black history by retrieving artifacts from sunken slave ships.
Making History While Celebrating History
Some notable moments in America’s Black history have coincided with Black History Month. For example, in February 1995, Dr. Bernard A. Harris Jr. became the first African American astronaut to walk in space. In February 2007, Barack Obama formally announced his candidacy for president with a speech in Springfield, Illinois. In February 2009, Eric Holder was sworn in as our country’s first African American attorney general.
This year Black History Month begins less than two weeks after Vice President Kamala Harris was sworn into office. She is the first woman, first Black American, and first South Asian American to be elected as U.S. Vice President. On the same day that she assumed office, Harris swore in Rev. Raphael Warnock – pastor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta – as he became the first African American to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate.
Ideas for What’s Ahead
Over time, African American History Month has evolved to not only look back but to also look forward. Organizations such as Movement for Black Lives and Black Lives Matter promote Black Futures Month in conjunction with Black History Month. While Black History Month focuses on past achievements, Black Futures Month looks ahead, and through art and creative expression discusses topics impacting Black communities and imagines the possibilities of what can lie ahead.
To learn more about diversity, equity, and inclusion, read our article on Making DEI Part of Your Company’s DNA or watch our webinar recording Race Relations and Your Business: Making DEI Part of Your Company’s DNA featuring two DEI experts.
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