The History Behind Black History Month

Gianna Hutton, Design Editor

February marks the celebration of Black History Month, a tradition founded in 1926. For many, this month serves as a period of reflection on their interactions with African American history over the past year. For others, it is possibly the only month where they learn about the rich history of the Black community. 

“Black History Month first originated as Negro History Week in 1926. The person credited for creating Negro History Week was Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Dr. Woodson was an educator, as well as an administrator, in the Washington, D.C. area, so he felt that there needed to be a place where Black history would be celebrated and showcased,” Associate Professor of Social Studies Education at the University of Missouri and Founding Director of CARTER Center for K-12 Black History Education LaGarrett King said. 

This year, thousands of resources educating the Miami-Dade community about Black history have circulated online. From Miami-Dade’s own celebrations to webinars by local advocacy groups such as the New Florida Majority, learning about Black history outside the classroom is at students’ fingertips. However, Woodson’s original intention for the month did not involve students seeking out external resources to learn more about Black history. 

“He created Negro History Week in February because of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. One important part about this is that he created it for students to be able to showcase what they’ve learned about Black history throughout the year, not as the only time that Black history was going to be taught,” King said. 

Since 1976, when President Gerald Ford signed a proclamation for Black History Month, the month of February has continued to be a celebration of Black history and culture. For members of the African American and Black community, it has special meaning. 

“As a child growing up in Brooklyn in New York City, I do vividly remember Black History Month as a month I would look forward to. In our school, which was in a section called East New York in Brooklyn, we celebrated, for example, Martin Luther King. I remember reading a speech about him when I was in fifth grade about his life, and for me as an American young woman, it felt like a time in which my history and culture was affirmed,” Director of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at Florida International University Alexandra Cornelius said. 

However, students, especially those from the Black community, face frustrations with the current curriculum of history courses and its lack of amplification of minority voices. A 2015 study by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Oberg Research found that, on average, less than 10% of history class time is devoted to Black history.

“I think that education on Black history, or any minority history, in America, is overlooked… and so I think it has to be our job to seek out that knowledge, instead of just sitting back and expecting it to be taught to us, because it’s not going to be taught to us,” Palmetto junior and African Heritage Club member Brighton Brown said. 

For educators, this month serves as an opportunity to acknowledge history’s intersectionality and diversity and highlight the importance of amplifying a broad array of perspectives. 

“It’s important to note that African American history should not be studied in isolation of other groups. So, for example, if you study desegregation in the United States, it’s also interesting to look at the ways in which the same rights that African Americans were fighting for were very similar to what people of Mexican descent in California and Texas were fighting for,” Cornelius said. “By taking the African American history experience outside of a particular Black context, it gives you a broader kind of bird’s eye view of the ways in which different movements actually did inform and learn from each other.”  

Black History Month also provides an opportunity to reevaluate the incorporation of Black education into school curriculums and its impacts on students. 

“It’s a time to begin to really situate what I would call ‘curriculum transformation’ because everyone knows that the curriculum lacks quality and critical Black history education. So this is a time where we can really focus on how the curriculum has improved or [has] not improved throughout the years and attempt to change that particular narrative,” King said. 

The perspective of viewing American history as a stagnant, isolated study separate from other social studies can create issues with feelings of inclusivity within students. 

“Throughout my education or career from, you know, elementary school to middle school to high school, the way that Black history has been talked about, or, especially in the history books, is it’s kind of written into the story of the white man. And it kind of makes me feel as if my people, my ancestors, were only a small fraction of the story,” Brown said. 

The theme of 2021’s Black History Month, The Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity, highlights the need for representation and diversity across education. The knowledge that students carry throughout their lives starts in the classroom, making representing all perspectives crucial to a well-educated, accepting population. 

“History needs to be changed to histories, and the ‘-y’ te denotes kind of the singular aspect of black history. That ‘-ies’ kind of denotes multiple perspectives of history. And if we begin to start thinking in our minds about this notion of histories instead of history, that would help teachers understand that there are different perspectives of this historical event that we are missing,” King said.

Considering the historical and current social movements that have highlighted injustices facing the Black community, such as the Black Lives Matter Movement, this month represents a need to teach Black history in culturally responsive ways for students to gain a better understanding of ongoing struggles in their own communities. 

“Certainly, there are some times in American history where it seems that the Black voice should be dominant. I think, for example, people still teach the Civil Rights Movement from a primarily black perspective, But again, if you take the Civil Rights Movement and understand that it was one movement… in a context of a variety of movements of anti-sexist, anti-racist and anti-imperialist movements that were going on not only in the United States, but around the world, that gives you a very much more dynamic understanding of the history,” Cornelius said. 

Beyond ensuring that the education students receive represents diverse voices, as the celebration originally intended to illustrate, this month serves as a reminder of respecting others, no matter their identity or race. 

“This month should really be about people reflecting on their own lives, not only learning, but also looking into themselves and [asking], ‘What am I doing to fix this?’ and, “If I’m not doing something, what should I do?’ Everyone doesn’t have to be an activist; I’m not an activist, I just feel like if I’m in a group of people, and someone says something that I don’t necessarily approve of or I think it has even the tinge of racism, I’m going to speak on it. I don’t care if they were saying it in jest. That’s far from okay,” Brown said. 

From learning in the classroom to learning on one’s own, being respectful and kind in daily interactions with members of the Black community illustrates true learning.

“If you’re not treating the people you come into contact with on a daily basis respectfully, then your activism really doesn’t amount to much. It’s really easy sometimes for people to be socially conscious and aware with people outside of their circle, but how are you dealing with the people who you come into contact every day?” Cornelius said.  

To learn more about Black history, check out the following resources:

  • Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education Webinars
  • Miami-Dade County Black Affairs Advisory Board Events 
  • Home Team History Youtube Channel: This Youtube channel provides history videos about the African civilization and aims to create cultural awareness.
  • Henry Louis Gates PBS specials: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is an American literary critic and intellectual known for his work on African and African American literature. With his PBS series available both on the PBS website and  Youtube channel, Gates educates on a broad array of topics from the Black church in his latest series to slavery in past documentaries. 
  • Documentaries: 
    • Eyes on the Prize: This documentary, available for free on Youtube, documents the long history of the Civil Rights Movement, from the 1950s to far into the 1970s. 
    • Four Little Girls: This documentary, also available for free on Youtube, focuses on four girls who died in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement. It highlights the involvement of children in the movement and the power of students uniting.

One Night in Miami: This new film focuses on the lives of Sam Cooke, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Jim Brown and their lives as successful Black men during the Civil Rights Movement. Users can stream the movie on Amazon Prime.