What We Must Not Forget About Black History Month – Especially in 2019

Woodson did not view “Negro History Week” as something that would continue indefinitely

With the Erosion of Civil Rights and Voting Rights, a focus on Black History Month is more important than ever

There’s a muttering sound about the continued usefulness of Black History Month. As we’ve moved further away from segregation, Jim Crow and state sponsored terror some are forgetting the history of Black History Month.  And why the ongoing celebration remains an important part of our struggle for the recognition of African Americans achievement. Inventions whose creators’ identity has been erased and their contributions to America have been buried, lost or stolen.

Carter G. Woodson was the son of former slaves. He recognized that of all the hundreds of Black men and women who produced substantial inventions, only four Black inventors have been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio.

Carter G. Woodson “father” of Black History Month

In 1916, Woodson co-founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, in 1976 the organization was renamed the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. The purpose of the organization was to publish and fund research and writing projects about black history. And to train Black historians and to collect, preserve, and publish documents on Black life and Black people.

In 1926, Negro History Week was established; the week was a time in which contributions by blacks were emphasized. The month of February was selected to honor Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln who were both born in that month. According to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, “The response to Negro History Week was overwhelming: Black history clubs sprang up; teachers demanded materials to instruct their pupils; and progressive whites, not simply white scholars and philanthropists, stepped forward to endorse the effort.”

Dr. Woodson’s concept of recognizing this omission and his method of addressing the issue has given a profound sense of dignity to all Black Americans.

A sample of items invented by African-Americans. “Click” on image to enlarge.

Black Inventors’ contributions were instrumental in the growth of America from an agricultural society to an industrial powerhouse. African-Americans are responsible for product innovation we now take for granted; from the development of crop rotation, the traffic light, the mail box, gas mask, fountain pen, typewriter, telegraph, golf tee, automatic gear shift, commode toilet— to the method of dry cleaning clothes, the electric lamp, and the automatic car coupler and air brake for the railroad. Just to name a few.

What began as Negro History Week was only expanded to include the entire month by Presidential Proclamation, extending the time Americans would focus on the achievements of African-Americans. In 1976 during the nations Bicentennial, President Gerald R. Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Woodson did not view “Negro History Week” as something that would continue indefinitely. In fact, according to historical accounts compiled by Dorothy E. Lyles, “Dr. Woodson often said that he hoped the time would come when Negro History Week would be unnecessary; when all Americans would willingly recognize the contributions of Black Americans as a legitimate and integral part of the history of this country.”  That time “when all Americans would willingly recognize” is yet to come.

And perhaps, events and situations we are seeing in 2019 makes Black History Month more important. Substantial gains in voting rights and civil rights appear to be images in a rearview mirror. Eight years of an African-American President, Barack Obama, once a source of hope and change, the 2016 election measured the backlash of the American voter.  Donald Trump was elected, a man whose actions threaten to take African Americans back in time, to the 1950’s; back to time when voter suppression was enacted and supported by state law. Those days have returned.