10 Feb 2020

Black History Month: Where Did it Come From … and Why?

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Black History, Bobby's World, Books, Church, Contemporary Ethics, Culture, Journey, Love, Ministry, Mission, Race Relations, Unity

You will do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (James 2.8; cf. Galatians 6.2)

Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950)
Father of Black History Month

The Valentine Discovery of Black History

This month is Black History Month. I did not always know what Black History Month was nor have I always appreciated why we need it. While living in New Orleans, in the early 1990s, I first learned about this month. At the cajoling of some African American friends, I read Lerone Bennett’s Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America, 1619-1962 which was truly a perspective on American history that was completely alien to me.

The closest thing I ever recall to an exposure to black history was in my senior English class with Mrs. Dowdy, she made us read Richard Wright’s Native Son, a book I detested at the time because I had absolutely no way to meaningfully receive what was in it. I do not recall us ever discussing the book in class. It would be the late 1990s early 2000’s that I was able to read Wright with any perspective at all.

Grenada, Mississippi was my “baptism of fire” from which I have never been the same. New Orleans had, as I look back opened my eyes to the depth of my naivete but it was Grenada that forever changed me. Some will say for the better and some of my friends and family think I have lost my way. But I think I have come closer to the kingdom of God and its values

When my family moved to Grenada, MS in 1997, I had several books under my belt. We moved from New Orleans to Grenada because it was significantly closer to Harding School of Theology in Memphis (and I had been driving one day a week, every week). It was in Grenada, where I discovered that Black History Month might as well have been communist history month with the local powers that be. The Daughters of the American Revolution presented the Mayor with a declaration, that he signed every year I was there, that declared February to be American History Month. It was an intentional slap in the face. It was in Mississippi that I became quite familiar with the Daughters of the American Revolution and their partners the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Ignorance is not bliss!

I began to incorporate themes from Black History Month into my preaching in during the month of February. Then I was invited to teach at a couple historically black churches and did so for several years. I became President of the Ministerial Alliance and continued to be involved and was recognized by the Belle Flower Missionary Baptist Church for “unselfish dedication and service in observance of Black History Month” in 1999. It was not long after that I was told to pack my bags.

Carter G. Woodson, Father of Black History Month

Black History Month was the creation of black scholar Carter Goodwin Woodson in 1926.

Woodson’s is, itself, an inspiring story of a man overcoming nearly insurmountable odds to accomplish so much for so many. Woodson was born in New Canton, Virginia, December 19, 1875, the son of former slaves, Anne Eliza (Riddle) and James Henry Woodson. His parents were both illiterate and his father, who had helped the Union soldiers during the Civil War, supported the family as a carpenter and farmer. Woodson’s chance for education was slim growing up having to work with the family simply to avoid starvation. Nonetheless, through self-instruction, he was able to master most school subjects.

At the age of seventeen, Woodson followed his brother to Huntington where he hoped to attend the brand new secondary school for blacks, Douglass High School.

However, Woodson, forced to work as a coal miner, was able to devote only minimal time each year to his schooling. In 1895, the twenty-year-old Woodson finally entered Douglass High School full-time, and received his diploma in 1897. From 1897 to 1900, Woodson taught at Winona.

In 1900 he was selected as the principal of Douglass High School. He earned his Bachelor of Literature degree from Berea College in Kentucky in 1903 by taking classes part-time between 1901 and 1903. From 1903 to 1907, Woodson was a school supervisor in the Philippines.

Woodson later attended the University of Chicago where he was awarded an A.B. and A.M. in 1908.  He completed his PhD in history at Harvard in 1912, where he was the second African American, after W. E. B. DuBois, to earn a doctorate. His doctoral dissertation, The Disruption of Virginia, was based on research he did at the Library of Congress while teaching high school in Washington, D.C. After earning the doctoral degree, he continued teaching in public schools, later joining the faculty at Howard University as a professor, and served there as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Why Black History

Carter Woodson was an industrious scholar with a passion for the dignity of his people. He had already started the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 and began and edited a professional journal titled The Journal of Negro History to promote the study of black history. But Woodson needed to do more to get the “message” out, not only to blacks who needed their personhood affirmed but whites who happily denied it.

So Woodson began “Negro History Week” in 1926 and it has become “Black History Month.” February was chosen, by Woodson, because Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois were born in February and the 15th Amendment was passed in February. In February 1976, Republican President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month. It is surprising how many Republicans these days bemoan Black History Month when it was a Republican who officially recognized. Many times the party of Lincoln is only the party of Lincoln in name only.

White Americans tend to romanticize the 1920s as the “Roaring Twenties.” The age of the Flapper. The age of free spirits. The Golden Age of the Silent Movies. The Great Gatsby.

But that is just the politically correct version of American history of the Twenties. Nineteen-twenty six when Woodson began Black History Month was a violent era.

This was an era of intense racism, not only in the old South but across the United States. The Red Summer of 1919 when riots broke out across three dozen American cities killing hundreds of African Americans, frequently black soldiers who had come home from the War in Europe. It was the age of the Tulsa Riot of 1921 when hundreds of blacks were murdered and Black Wall Street was burned to the ground. It was the day of Rosewood in which an entire town was wiped off the map in Florida. The Ku Klux Klan proudly marched down the streets of Washington DC. Perhaps the “spirit of the age” was captured best by the raging success of the movie “Birth of a Nation” released in 1915 and was screened to the delight of Woodrow Wilson at the White House.

But it was also the age of the Harlem Renaissance. African Americans fought the stifling racism on the street, on the screen, and in the hearts and minds of Americans.

In that mix, Woodson created “Negro History Week” (i.e. Black History Month). If you can deny or erase a person’s history (=story) then you can deny or erase the personhood of the “other.” Black history was not taught, it was not acknowledged, because the personhood of blacks was denied and erased. Black History Month is a recognition of the humanity and dignity of the personhood of blacks in the United States.

When the chips are down, this is why Black History Month matters: It brings me (and us) face to face with the humanity of African Americans. Now as a Christian, and that is how I approach this, this simply means loving my neighbor as myself. I cannot love my neighbor if I do not know my neighbor.

An Act of Love

Black History Month is more than posting a photo of Martin Luther King Jr on Facebook. I want to encourage you to step purposefully, in the name of love, outside your ordinary walk for the purpose of learning and understanding. (See my blog article that makes the case that Black History Month provides a golden opportunity for Christians to obey the Law of Christ to love our neighbors as ourselves: For the Love of Christ Compels Me: Seeking to Understand is Rooted in Love.)

The more we know another person’s story the more we appreciate who that person is. The same is with a group of people. And the whole is richer by recognizing the contribution of the parts … this is simply the application of Paul’s “body” metaphor of the church. A very biblical idea!

For More See:

You Sound Like a Racist, An Autobiographical Moment.

Learning & “Thinking” about “Race” as a Southern White Disciple of the Jewish Messiah.

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