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A Breakdown of Black History Month

February 16, 2016

February generally brings Valentine’s Day to mind. The notions of romance overpower another important aspect of February: Black History Month.

Plenty of people vividly recall a time in elementary school where they most likely wrote a paper about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X, but many pay no mind to its significance beyond those experiences. Black History Month remains so undervalued in American society that many people have no idea when it gained official recognition from the United States.

“You know I have no idea when it started,” senior Marcello Peschiera said. “I’m going to guess it started in the 1980’s?”

Black History Month gained prominence on the national stage in 1976, though Kent State University began the idea in 1969 and its first celebration was in 1970. The idea of a preservation of black culture, history and identity in America certainly precedes Black History Month by several centuries.

The desire to retain a unique identity as diasporic Africans has existed since the first slave ships reached the Caribbean. To turn such ideas into reality, however, requires a position of autonomy that African-Americans would not find until the late 19th century.

The emancipation of slaves, through the 13th Amendment in 1865, acts as a catalyst for the preservation of black culture. In his novel, “The Souls of Black Folk,” W.E.B. Du Bois argued that personal emancipation eventually leads to personal leadership.

Freedom does not necessitate equality, as southern blacks would eventually find out once Jim Crow Laws passed during the Reconstruction of the South, post-Civil War. The set of laws attempted to oppress and segregate African-Americans.

Racism in the South permeated long into the 20th century, even beyond the Civil Rights Movement and leaks into the 21st century, with the Ferguson and Trayvon Martin cases being prime examples within the last few years. Early 20th century racism exists in direct contrast to the more subtle racism of the present. Former president Woodrow Wilson, a Southerner, referred to the Ku Klux Klan as a “veritable empire” that sought to “protect the Southern country.”

Such attitudes showed the abandonment of blacks by white people and the necessity of self-determination. If blacks did not preserve their own history, they would no doubt find themselves entirely forgotten in society.

1915 proved a landmark year for such actions. Black historian Carter G. Woodson and prominent black minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). Woodson argued that blacks had to preserve their culture as opposed to the Native Americans, who did not, and found themselves marginalized and their history rewritten by malicious hands.

Moorland, in 1914, donated his large collection of books on blacks in Africa to what would eventually become the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. The center continues to provide vast resources regarding the black experience and history in America.

ASNLH would eventually sponsor a national Negro History Week in 1926. The two chose to honor it during the second week of February, which coincides with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

Negro History Week found its rightful place on the calendar over the course of several decades. States adopted it, as well as various college campuses that hosted local celebrations, established history clubs and hosted lectures on black history.

The expansion of Negro History Week into Black History Month in 1976 followed, in part because of several colleges led by Kent University, observing the importance of the holiday. Coupled with the prominence of civil rights efforts in America, then-president Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month.

These things brought black history to the forefront of the American consciousness every February. Black history in America tells a gruesome story of oppression, marginalization and unequal opportunity. It calls to mind the worst aspects of mankind and reminds Americans why the march for racial equality must continue.

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