What Black History Month means

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Stylized Black History Month graphic

This message is one of many messages related to our diverse community’s numerous unique holidays, including cultural, historic, and religious observances throughout the year. I am likely to write about the holidays or cultural observances that mean the most to you as they occur throughout the year.

Throughout February, our College and our nation have celebrated Black History Month. This is a way to recognize and honor the accomplishments and contributions of Black individuals and communities to our nation’s history, culture, and values.

The College, through the leadership of the Black Male and QUEENS Focus Group faculty and students, has hosted a series of educational and inspirational events throughout this month.

What is Black History Month?

Black History Month (sometimes called African American History Month) was first recognized by U.S. President Gerald Ford in 1976. Other nations, such as Canada and the U.K., also designate a month to celebrate Black History.

While the official holiday dates back only 45 years, its roots are grounded in events that took place generations before the founding of the United States. This month-long commemoration traces its roots to the centuries-long enslavement of Black people, and the exclusion, exploitation, and racism toward African Americans throughout our nation’s history. The month gives us an opportunity to focus collectively on this history, and also to learn and grow through understanding the contributions of Black men and women and how they have contributed to and enriched our society.

I am sometimes asked why we focus on Black history. It is important to understand the context in which Black History Month is commemorated. Much of this history is painful, including the brutal enslavement and exploitation of a race of people. Some of this history is celebratory for the contributions and perseverance our fellow citizens have shown. Understanding this history, in total, is crucial both for our mission of higher education and for developing a knowledge of race relations in the United States to this day.

Many of the earliest groups of Black people to arrive in the Americas were violently kidnapped from their native lands in Africa, separated from their communities, placed in chains, and forcibly transported under inhumane conditions across the Atlantic Ocean. Enslavement of Africans in the United States began in the 1500s, when Portuguese and Spanish ships brought Black people to what is now the Dominican Republic. By the 1560s, enslavement was common and was taking its place as the labor foundation of agriculture and commerce in what is now North America. In 1641, Massachusetts became the first American colony to officially legalize slavery. When the United States declared its independence from Great Britain in 1776, slavery was legal in all 13 colonies. Pennsylvania was the first colony to abolish slavery, in 1780.

Slavery remained legal in parts of the United States throughout the American Civil War. During the war, in September 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (effective January 1, 1863), freeing all enslaved persons in the states that had seceded from the Union. Two years later, in January 1865, Congress passed the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which officially outlawed slavery across the nation.

In practice, slavery remained in force in the southern states through the conclusion of the war in April 1865, and even longer in some places. In fact, the holiday of Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19, recognizes the day the U.S. Army proclaimed freedom of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, in June 1865.

There are many important sources that detail the history of slavery in America and describe the stories of those who were enslaved. Each year, groups of HFC students with the Black Male and QUEENS Focus Group visit the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University. The museum’s website and exhibits provide a good way to learn more about these topics.

Dr. Carter G. Woodson and the beginnings of Black History Month

In 1915, historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). It was the first national organization with a mission to study and promote achievements by Black Americans and people of African descent.

Dr. Woodson’s parents had been born into slavery and became free after the Civil War. They worked hard to provide for their family, and young Carter worked hard as well. His work kept him from completing high school until he was 22. He then earned a series of college degrees, culminating in his Ph.D. from Harvard University, where he was only the second Black man to earn a doctorate.

Woodson soon realized that the innumerable contributions of Black men and women to American and world history were largely “overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed” by historians, who “provided thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind.”

Woodson set out to change this through his research, writings, and activism.

In 1926, Woodson and Moorland founded Negro History Week, to commemorate and promote the contributions of Black people throughout the nation’s history. They chose the second week in February in recognition of the birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln.

The week-long event inspired communities to host celebrations, performances, and lectures. The annual celebration continued each February until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s led to the creation of a month-long commemoration. College campuses led the way in the month-long activities until President Gerald R. Ford recognized Black History Month nationally in 1976. He called upon Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Each year, Black History Month has a national theme. The 2021 theme, “Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity,” explores the African movement in the United States through a family-focused historic lens.

Celebrations and observances

Many events such as lectures, art shows, performances, concerts, marches, cultural activities, and other commemorations take place throughout the month in communities, or sponsored by colleges and universities and other organizations. Along with the vibrant celebrations, Black History Month is also grounded in serious study of the history of Black individuals and communities.

It is important that this study and learning should continue throughout the year. A month to honor Black heritage and contributions to the world’s societies is important. But if the learning does not spread throughout the year, we will miss out on understanding the depth, context, and richness of vast segments of our collective history.

I encourage you to look up one of the many Black History Month tribute websites such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture, PBS, Story Corps, and JSTOR, to name a few. You are likely to find the stories of countless men and women whose names and histories will be new to you. As a nation, we work to honor and study the history of the Black individuals and communities who have built our country and our society. As Dr. Woodson said, “[t]hose who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”

At Henry Ford College, the Black History Month event series this year included lectures, an art show, discussions of historic figures and culture, and conversations about topics important to all Americans. Most of the videos are now available on the BMQFG website. I am particularly proud that HFC students not only participated in these activities, but students Alanna Grace-Marie Schwartz and Dia Camara were the featured presenters at two events. They are powerful representatives of the diversity of lives, experiences, and successes within our community.

I hope all of us will find enrichment through the activities and study of Black History Month, and the other recognition and heritage months throughout the year. This is one step toward a more equitable and inclusive community that celebrates every form of human diversity.

Russ Kavalhuna