By Zacharia Nchinda, history instructor in MATC’s School of Liberal Arts and Sciences

The genesis of Black History Month (African-American History Month) goes back 100 years, to 1915. Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson had long observed, and rightfully so, that the standard American history books all focused on whites and hardly mentioned the contributions of African-Americans and other minorities in the shaping and building of the foundation of this nation. Non-white groups were relegated to the margins and the few mentions made of them were mostly in ways that justified white supremacy.

To fill that gap for African-Americans and blacks as a whole, Woodson and Jesse E. Mooreland co-founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (today known as the Association of the Study of African American Life and History) in 1915. The association set out to actively promote scholarly research and dissemination of information about the achievements of black people and their contributions to world civilization. The following year, Woodson founded the Journal of Negro History as a forum for the publication of such works.

Another milestone in the creation of Black History Month followed a decade later. In order to stimulate, encourage and integrate black people’s history into American history and society, Woodson, using the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, propelled the first Negro History Week in 1926. He selected the second week of February mainly because it contained the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two important figures in black history. Though it had a timid start, the Negro History Week quickly gained momentum across the nation as United States Department of Education officials spread the word to their teachers. Many black history clubs were formed and many mayors authorized its observation as a holiday. The week highlighted many of the contributions of African-Americans in the building of this nation.

The final milestone in the national celebration of Black History Month occurred in 1976, as the U.S. celebrated its 200th anniversary. President Gerald Ford officially extended the Negro History Week into a month-long ceremony. In his message to the nation on the significance of observing an African-American History Month, Ford called on all Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Since then, subsequent presidents have endorsed the month with statements and called on all Americans to acknowledge and appreciate the diversity embedded in this nation. As President Jimmy Carter stated in 1978, it “gives each of us a keener appreciation of an important part of the priceless legacy which Americans of every creed, color and national origin are fortunate to share.” For President Ronald Reagan, in 1981, understanding black history was “a key to understanding the strength of our nation. Their struggles, achievements and perseverance help us understand the moral fiber of America and our commitment to freedom, equality and justice.”

In pursuing this goal, diverse activities are performed by public and private institutions nationwide. For example, events are held at all educational levels to focus on African-American experiences. They cover general or specific issues such as population and growth and contributions and accomplishments of prominent African-Americans in all walks of life. Observances highlight African-American inventors and inventions, holidays, special awards for African-Americans and civil rights struggles. Celebrations and activities feature quotations, quizzes, crossword puzzles and competitions (poetry, rap, reading and coloring).

The designation of a Black History Month and the accompanying ceremonies have not gone without a hitch. Critics have raised their voices about its fairness to other American racial groups, questioned its continuous relevance, and pointed to the fact that whites stress their history year round. Yet, Black History Month persists because of the deep meaning it conjures up for African-Americans and blacks as a whole. It fills a racial omission and misrepresentation still common in American historical records, enriches the nation as a whole by highlighting the contributions of all Americans in the task of nation building, links African-Americans’ enslaved past with the challenges they face today and  provides hope for a future when “colorblindness” will be appreciated by all races equally. It reminds Americans to aspire for Martin Luther King’s dream world, where people are appreciated for the content of their character and not the color of their skin. Black History Month is now celebrated by blacks in other countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom.