Debating Black History Month

By Scott Hancock

Associate Professor

History and Africana Studies

  Two famous men who visited Gettysburg in the 1860s share February as their birth month: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.  Black Americans started celebrating Lincoln’s birthday soon after his assassination as way to honor their nineteenth-century Moses.  In the 1890s, African Americans began celebrating Douglass’s birthday after his death as way to honor the most prominent black leader of their time. Taking advantage of a half century of black celebration traditions during February, Carter G. Woodson, as head of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (which still exists today at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, or ASALH), kicked off Negro History Week in 1926.  His goal was not simply to highlight the achievements of the most prominent men in black history, but to direct the attentions of Americans—of all colors—to the achievements of black men and women, and to firmly establish that African Americans had always been central to the American story.

  Woodson’s goal was to expand Negro History Week—not to a month, but to the point where African American history was taught year round.  In fact, Woodson would likely be disappointed with the tendency of many public and private institutions today that often include occasional mentions of the role of black men and women in United States history, and provide extra emphasis during February.  The original intent was for one February week to be a celebration: a time for students to show off what they had learned throughout the year.

                Negro History Week became Black History Month during the Civil Rights Movement’s latter stages in the 1960s. Recently, debates have cropped up about whether a need for Black History Month remains.  Some historians and, famously, Morgan Freeman argue that retaining a special month reduces the likelihood that African American history will be incorporated into mainstream history.  Others argue that until racial equity is achieved, Black History Month serves important functions for all Americans by placing African Americans in the center of the American story, and by maintaining an unflinching focus on the promises of equality and justice for all Americans.

                After the first official black history week in 1926, Woodson described the week as a vital weapon in the fight for political, legal, social, and economic equality.  Woodson’s thinking would indeed support an argument for the abolition of Black History Month—once political, legal, social, and economic equality were a reality.  When Woodson died in 1950, he glimpsed a few faint hints of that the gaps in equity between black and white Americans might start closing.  Woodson would probably be pleased with the progress in closing some of the gaps; he’d be dismayed with others. Economists have noted, for instance, that the wealth gap between black and white Americans—not the income gap, but the gap in total assets—has indeed narrowed since the Civil Rights Movement.  But barely.  If it continues to close at the same rate, the United States will see economic equity between black and white Americans in the year 2449.  Woodson’s argument for the necessity of a celebration of Black History retains its relevance, though he undoubtedly would have liked to see that necessity disappear in the 21st, not the 25th , century.