Friday, February 24, 2012

Black History Month: Setting the Record Straight

I have just completed setting down some thoughts on African American Heritage Month for taping later this morning over at Civic Commons, a precious local gem for serious thinkers who don’t take themselves too seriously. The commentary will be aired next Tuesday at 12:30PM and also available via podcast, iTunes, and perhaps sundry other channels as well. We hope you will listen and let the folk over at Civic Commons  know what you think. We may print it here after it goes on air but it’s written for the ear rather than the eye, which in fact may be a higher standard. 

As a special present we offer a guest perspective today on Black History Month, penned by our friend Stephen G. Hall. We met Dr. Hall about a year and a half ago at a luncheon at Case Western Reserve University, where he is a Visiting Assistant Professor of African American History. He is also the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America.[1] 

We are pleased to offer Dr. Hall the Real Deal platform to set the story straight on Black History Month. [Find more about Professor Hall here.]
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Black History Month : Setting the Story Straight
By Stephen G. Hall

There are many misconceptions regarding the origins of Black History Month. Most of these misperceptions revolve around two issues. First, the erroneous belief that the observance was initiated outside of the African American community. Second, this idea is an outgrowth of the first issue, that the celebration was deliberately planned in the shortest month of he year, February. Introducing a few simple facts into the conversation will go a long way in clarifying both the origins and timing of the observance.

Contrary to popular belief, Black History Month was not initiated by majoritarian communities as a means of marginalizing African Americans or placed in February because it was the shortest month of the year. Not surprisingly these perceptions continue to persist despite the existence of diverse resources about the origins of this celebration.  Black History month began as Negro History Week in 1926.  Carter G. Woodson, the second African American to receive a Ph.D. in History from Harvard University and the founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), established the observance as a means of informing Americans of the many achievements of African Americans.
Woodson believed the history and historical study of the past, what he termed “scientific history,” would contribute to challenge persistent and pervasive stereotypes regarding African American capacity and capabilities.
One of the most aggressive promoters of African American history as a legitimate scholarly specialty, Woodson also established the Journal of Negro History (JNH) in 1916, a scholarly journal focusing on the African American past and later, in the 1930’s, he inaugurated the Negro History Bulletin (NHB). This journal encouraged the study of black history in primary and secondary schools. In conjunction with Mary McLeod Bethune, President of the ASNLH from 1936-1951, Woodson worked to promote the celebration at the local, state and national levels. He is also credited with providing financial support and practical training of  associate investigators who became the first generation of African American historians between 1915 and 1950. Scholars, many of whom would distinguish themselves in various areas of African and American history, such as Lorenzo Greene, James Hugo Johnston, Alrutheus Ambush Taylor. Rayford Logan and Charles Wesley, benefited from their association with Woodson and the ASNLH. In this sense, Woodson, and these investigators, created what we know today as African American history.
Woodson’s sense of African American history, his involvement in its professionalization and its importance to African Americans was also reflected in the choice of February as the month for the observance. February was a logical choice for  Black History celebrations  because it featured the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln, widely viewed as the Great Emancipator, and Frederick Douglass, the most prominent African American in the nineteenth century. These men were viewed as influential historical figures in the African American experience up to 1926. Both men were also Republicans, and this party enjoyed African American political support for the latter third of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. Negro History Week became Black History Month in 1980. Today, the ASNLH continues to thrive as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) and it produces a Black History Kit. This year’s theme is African Americans and the Civil War.
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[1] [In John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, October  2009)]

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