blog

Reflections on Black History Month: Connecting Past, Present, and Future

Laura Marti – February 27, 2024

In reflecting on what Black History Month means to me, I realized that, unfortunately, Black History Month was never part of my education. I went through school in the 70s and college in the 80s, but everything I know about Black history I have learned in the past decade. It was not taught to me in school. This made me curious to learn a little more about when Black history began to be taught in schools. Apparently, it was just beginning to be recognized and taught at the time I was in school. 

WHEN DID BLACK HISTORY START BEING TAUGHT IN SCHOOLS

Carter G. Woodson is the historian and journalist who in 1926, along with other members of his organization, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), started Negro History Week. This later became what we celebrate today as Black History Month. Woodson’s objective was for schools in America and beyond to start teaching students about the history of Black people, and his contribution to this remains almost unrivaled. With his foundation, he wrote various textbooks, created school course programs, and started The Journal of African American History – one of the first that would publish scholarly papers on Black lives, culture, and history.

It wasn’t until the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement that Woodson’s mission gained traction. Only in the middle of the 20th century did the U.S. government pass laws to replace history textbooks that depicted the Black populations in a discriminatory way. Soon, following the example set by California law in 1961, seven states introduced laws stating or recommending that Black history be taught in schools. In 1969, Social Education, the flagship journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, published a special edition promoting the importance of curricula that includes the study of Black history. 

The Status of Black History in U.S. Schools and Society | socialstudies.org

In school districts across the U.S., Black students, teachers, and parents began to demand that Black history courses become either part of the social studies curriculum or exist as standalone courses. Some schools/school districts – especially those with large Black populations – established Black history courses, and it was this type of experience which became the foundation of the multicultural education movement.

During the civil rights movement, the growth of the Black Power Movement also played a role in Black history being taught in schools. As a student-driven movement that was responsible for the formation of Black student organizations on college campuses, the Black Power movement inspired student walkouts calling for Black history classes, establishment of Black studies departments, increasing African American faculty, and additions to curricula. The activism of that period led to a shift toward teaching Black history through both recovery of global narratives beyond the Western European continent, as well as highlighting the stories of organizations led by people of color and lesser known yet extraordinary individuals who worked for larger social changes. By the time Black History Month was formally declared in 1976, the Black Power movement had fueled a new emphasis on African American lives and the achievements of neglected Black leaders and their successes as Americans, inspired by the principles of racial pride, autonomy, and self-determination.

Black Community Survival Conference, 1972 (Stanford University: Bob Fitch Collection | Black Perspectives, AAIHS)

WHAT BLACK HISTORY MONTH MEANS TO ME

This persistence to fight for recognition of the remarkable impact of Black people on our history is inspiring to me. Though it began during my schooling, I really only noticed the teaching of Black History when my own children were in school from the 2000s – 2020s. It gave me a lot of joy seeing one of my sons choose to do his project on Martin Luther King Jr. for Black History Month in elementary school. What I loved about it was his excitement and respect for MLK, so much that he wanted to wear a suit (like he saw in photos of MLK) to give his presentation. I was also happy to see my youngest daughter learning about the history of the African continent in middle school. That was new to me, and I remember thinking maybe we’re finally making some progress.

Considering all these things, here are some personal reflections on why Black History Month is important to me.

IT CORRECTS THE HISTORICAL RECORD. Black History Month is vital because it helps us recognize the numerous contributions of Black individuals throughout our nation’s history. It offers an opportunity to discover and appreciate the often overlooked figures whose drive, innovation, creativity, intellect, and expertise have shaped our society. By making sure we accurately tell the narrative and events of history, Black History Month ensures that events, people, and experiences that have been historically excluded are rightfully recognized and celebrated.

An important example I only learned about five years ago is the Wilmington coup and massacre of 1898. The city of Wilmington, North Carolina once stood out as a vibrant, mixed-race community. That came to a dramatic end in 1898 when white supremacists staged a bloody coup in which the city’s government was overthrown and 60 Black men were killed, then 2100 Black people fled the city in fear, never to return. The white supremacists subsequently rewrote the narrative of the coup and murders, portraying it as ‘good, clean government by white men,’ over the ‘corrupt and incompetent Black rule.’ This was the way the story was told for 100 years until the University of NC Wilmington sought to correct the historical record in 1998 at the event’s centennial, and attempted to bring some racial healing. You can find the story here in David Zucchino’s book Wilmington’s Lie, and also hear an interview with him at When History Gets it Wrong: David Zucchino on the Wilmington Massacre | Amanpour and Company.

Men gather outside the charred remains of The Daily Record, a Black newspaper in Wilmington, after the 1898 massacre. (Library of Congress)

IT IS ADDING EQUAL VALUE. “Prioritizing diversity is not about demonizing or devaluing white people. It’s about seeking and valuing people of color as well. It’s not about subtraction. It’s about adding.” — Marie Beech from the Know Better Do Better Podcast.

This quote speaks poignantly to the intention I see behind Black History Month. For too long, historical narratives were predominantly focused on white figures, neglecting the significant contributions of Black Americans and other people of color. By embracing Black History Month, we have the opportunity to be more inclusive and ensure that all diverse individuals who have shaped our history are recognized, and all children (and their adults), regardless of race, have the chance to learn about these individuals.

An exemplar of this is Frederick Douglass, whose significant role often stands in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln. Douglass, a prominent abolitionist leader, orator, writer, and statesman, founded The North Star in 1847, an influential abolitionist newspaper with over 4,000 readers across the United States. Through this platform, he vehemently opposed slavery and educated the masses. During the American Civil War, Douglass emerged as a pivotal figure, tirelessly advocating for the complete emancipation of enslaved individuals. His persistent agitation, including consistently pressing President Lincoln, contributed to the eventual issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863. This is not to take away from Lincoln’s role, but instead to be honest about where Lincoln fell short and where people like Douglass were involved in making this historical event happen.

IT ENCOURAGES ME TO KEEP LEARNING. I have a deep curiosity for learning. As I delve into Black History, I find myself compelled to unearth more knowledge. Each new discovery about a Black American figure fills me with excitement, as I realize the profound impact they have had on our world. A fun “wow” moment for me was finding the prolific inventor who called himself the “Black Edison,” Garrett Morgan, who created early versions of the 3-way traffic light and the gas mask used in WWI.

Inventor Garrett Morgan, Getty Images

IT INSPIRES ME TO CELEBRATE. Each day, I spend time seeking out new knowledge about Black individuals and their remarkable impact on history, as well as their ongoing achievements in contemporary society. Black History Month not only honors the past but also fosters a deeper appreciation for the present and a hopeful outlook for the future. It ignites a continuous desire to explore and celebrate the rich tapestry of Black contributions to our world.

Having trained and worked as a microbiologist during my early career, I was especially excited to stumble upon #BlackinSTEM and #BlackinMicro during the pandemic. In the summer of 2020, Black scientists all over the globe, across many different disciplines, connected with each other online and came together. What started informally to support each other quickly grew into something much more impactful. It created a movement! That is something to celebrate. Read more about it here.

#BlackinSTEM | Source: CBC Radio Canada, Ben Shannon

While acknowledging the current, ongoing challenges in teaching Black History, I have witnessed significant progress just in my own lifetime that gives me a reason to celebrate. Seeing my children and grandchildren learn about the contributions of Black Americans that I never was taught in school brings me immense satisfaction. I celebrate the teaching of Black History and remain hopeful that we will continue to progress despite current setbacks. Let’s utilize Black History Month, as well as ongoing education about Black History throughout the year, to propel us forward.

RESOURCES

When Did Black History Start Being Taught in Schools | UnifyHighSchool

The Status of Black History in U.S. Schools and Society

Agitation and Activism: The Life and Legacy of Frederick Douglass | National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

How the Black Power Movement Influenced the Civil Rights Movement | HISTORY 

How did Black women, and the issue of women’s rights, influence and transform the Black Power Movement? – The Historian 

Garrett Morgan: Biography, Inventor, Entrepreneur | History 

Wilmington’s Lie (WINNER OF THE 2021 PULITZER PRIZE): The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy | David Zucchino | Grove Press

Check out this previous blogpost by Laura Marti:


Laura Martí is Content Creator and Resource Curator for Brownicity. Trained as a microbiologist and currently a wife and mother of four adult children, she has been on an antiracism journey since the death of Trayvon Martin. She shares from her own learning with the goal of educating others and lifting up the dignity of every person.