New February Activities Focus on Black History Importance
New February Activities Focus on Black History Importance
By: Rollie Atkinson
Date: February 14, 1976
Source: Atkinson, Rollie. "New February Activities Focus on Black History Importance." The News (February 14, 1976).
About the Author: Rollie Atkinson was a staff writer for the News, a newspaper for Frederick County, Maryland, that is now known as the Frederick News-Post.
The year 2006 marks the eightieth anniversary of black history celebrations. In February 1926, Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson (1875–1950) introduced the annual Negro History Week. Woodson hoped to promote pride within the black community and to foster more awareness and appreciation of African Americans and their contributions to society. Racism was widespread and blatant from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. From 1890 to 1925, one black American was lynched every 2.5 days. (Lynching is an act in which a mob of citizens execute someone, usually by hanging, without due process of law.) Against the backdrop of extreme prejudice and pervasive stereotyping of black Americans as inferior citizens, Woodson sought to portray black Americans in a more complex and humane manner.
Negro History Week was an opportunity for people to learn about and reflect on the achievements of black men and women. It was also a time for the affirmation of goals and dreams. For mainstream America, it was an opportunity to look beyond the common caricatures of poverty and hopelessness to more realistic representations of family and faith.
This celebration became more popular in the 1940s. With the aid of "negro history kits," photos and posters, social and civic groups held lectures, rallies, and other events. In the 1960s, Negro History Week became Black History Month. Black History Month continues today as an annual celebration held in February. In turn, this observance has generated other explorations of American history such as Asian American Month (April), National Hispanic Heritage Month (mid-September to mid-October), Native American Heritage Month (November), and Women's History Month (March).
It was a common misconception eighty years ago that black people had no history worth studying. Today, during Black History Month, books, documentaries, television programs, and other media on the subject abound. Furthermore, African American history is now regarded as a respectable academic undertaking for historians and scholars alike. Scholars continue to debate, however, whether the social, psychological, and economic advances Woodson hoped for have been achieved. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, academics and historians wonder whether Black History Month is still relevant today.
For all of this week and the remainder of February special focus will be given to black history.
Why black history?
Black history, the study of events and people which together comprise the heritage and culture of Afro-Americans, for one-and-a-half centuries was largely ignored, maligned and forgotten. "To know where we are going we must know from where we came," is how one local black explains the importance of black history.
The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History first celebrated Negro History Week in February 1926. Now Black History Week, the occasion is held annually during the week of February containing both Abraham Lincoln's and black abolitionist Frederick Douglass's birthdates.
In past years, Frederick's NAACP organization has always led in coordinating Black History Week projects. This year, however, NAACP president Lord Nickens saw that other local groups were interested enough in black history to organize their own activities.
Several programs have been scheduled at Fort Detrick and Fort Ritchie and in addition to planned classroom topics throughout county schools, local high schools sponsored black history programs and displays this week.
This Sunday in the Ft. Detrick Chapel (building No. 924) a Fellowship program will feature the "Echoneers" of Baltimores First Apostolic Faith Institutional Church.
Later this month on the 28th a soul disco dance will be held in further observance of Black History Month in Ft. Detrick's NCO Club. Ft. Detrick also sponsored a youth talent show, soul food dinner and presentation by Mary Carter Smith, well-known African folklorist.
The February issue of Frederick Foundations, The News-Post's monthly Bicentennial supplement, will feature the history of blacks and other minorities.
For a long time, prior to the 20th century, there was little interest in preserving black history. Only recently has much significant black history been uncovered.
Old records mostly ignored and left out mention of blacks. They were not considered citizens as Frederick's own Roger Brooke Taney decreed in his famous Dred Scott Decision as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. A black was mentioned in official documents only as a piece of property along with cattle and furnishings for tax purposes or when they were given or able to buy their freedom.
A Frederick County document of the 1860s lists nearly 100 pages of names of freed slaves after the Civil War and passage of the 14th Amendment. The Book of Freed Negroes is now in the hands of the Maryland Hall of Records in Annapolis.
William O. Lee a local black who has collected Frederick black history claims that the first record of a Mack in Frederick was made in 1743 when Lord Baltimore made a land grant to a John Dorsey for a land parcel west of the Linganore Creek.
Official history, collected by whites, does not list the race of Dorsey but Lee claims, "The Mack people of New Market remember that he was black." Near the beginning of the Civil War, recorded history tells the story, of a former slave Greensburg Barton who bought land three miles east of Frederick on the eastern bank of the Monocacy River.
As other blacks moved to this area the community of Bartonsville grew up. In Frederick, it was not until shortly before 1920 that blacks were given the right to vote. While several local civic organizations for blacks were begun at about this time blacks still found it difficult to get their names in public accounts and records.
Reports of an active Ku Klux Klan in the vicinity and several actual raids and threatened lynchings served to deter blacks from speaking out too loudly. Progress and equality came begrudgingly to local blacks who in recent years following the Civil Rights crusade of Dr. Martin Luther King and others now share with whites in many more equal opportunities.
When Dr. Carter G. Woodson set out to share and publicize the rich history of African Americans, he unwittingly played a role in a revolution in American history. Around the same time black Americans were being persecuted and lynched, Native Americans were being relocated and driven off their land by the U.S. government. While black Americans were enduring segregation and Jim Crow, American women were fighting for equal rights as well as the right to vote. Black history is one thread of American history that was buried. Historians acknowledge that uncovering black history has enriched the tradition of American history and sparked others to research their history as well. Black history month sparked historical recovery on a number of fronts and has contributed to a more accurate and complex depiction of America.
Integrating black history into the framework of formal education is the next big step, according to Roger Wilkins, professor of history at George Mason University in Virginia:
I'm old enough to remember how history was taught…. And in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I was taught white history. When I graduated from high school, if you believed everything that our teachers told us, you would have thought that no black person had done anything useful in the history of the world. And then, although I love the University of Michigan, I went there for seven years, and I was never assigned a book, a play, a poem or an essay written by a black person. I never had a black professor; never had a female professor, either, for that matter.
Historians agree that a more concerted effort is needed to move black history away from a segregated celebration into a more inclusive celebration of American history. In fact, historians are attempting to add other missing and uncovered histories to the discourse and celebration of American history, including Native American history, Asian American history, women's history, and others. The next step is the scholarly integration of each of these disciplines into the study of American history as a whole.
Willis, Deborah. Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.
Considine, Austin. "Black History Month Events: A Slice of American History." New York Times (February 3, 2006).
Crowder, Ralph L. "Historical Significance of Black History Month." Black History Bulletin (January 1, 2002).
Wells, Barry S. "Why We Celebrate Black History Month." The Post-Standard (February 17, 2002).