February is Black History Month, and the theme of the 2020 observance is “African Americans and the Vote.”
The theme highlights the sesquicentennial and centennial of the 15th and 19th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The 15th Amendment, passed in 1870, gave black men the right to vote following the Civil War. The 19th Amendment was passed in 1920 and gave women the right to vote.
The theme of the observance is set each year by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
Black History Month is an annual observance that originated in the United States, where it is sometimes known as African-American History Month. And while the observance has received official recognition from the U.S. and Canadian governments, Black History Month is unofficially observed in Ireland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
The precursor to Black History Month was created in 1926 in the United States, when historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) announced the second week of February to be “Negro History Week.”
This week was chosen because it coincided with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on Feb. 12 and of Frederick Douglass on Feb. 14, both of which dates black communities had celebrated together since the late 19th century. Negro History Week was the center of the equation. The thought-process behind the week was never recorded, but scholars acknowledge two reasons for its birth: recognition and importance. Woodson felt deeply that at least one week would allow for the general movement to become something annually celebrated. Also, after the ten year long haul to successfully complete his “Journal of Negro History”, he realized the subject deserved to resonate with a greater audience.
From the event’s initial phase, primary emphasis was placed on encouraging the coordinated teaching of the history of American blacks in the nation’s public schools. The first Negro History Week was met with a lukewarm response, gaining the cooperation of the Departments of Education of the states of North Carolina, Delaware and West Virginia as well as the city school administrations of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Despite this far from universal observance, the event was regarded by Woodson as “one of the most fortunate steps ever taken by the Association”, and plans for a repeat of the event on an annual basis continued apace.
At the time of Negro History Week’s launch, Woodson contended that the teaching of black history was essential to ensure the physical and intellectual survival of the race within broader society:
“If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of exterminated,” Woodson said. “The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization.”
By 1929, The Journal of Negro History was able to note that with only two exceptions, officials with the State Departments of Education of “every state with considerable Negro population” had made the event known to that state’s teachers and distributed official literature associated with the event. Churches also played a significant role in the distribution of literature in association with Negro History Week during this initial interval, with the mainstream and black press aiding in the publicity effort.
Negro History Week was met with enthusiastic response; it prompted the creation of black history clubs, an increase in interest among teachers, and interest from progressive whites. Negro History Week grew in popularity throughout the following decades, with mayors across the United States endorsing it as a holiday.
Black History Month
Black History Month was first proposed by black educators and the Black United Students at Kent State University in February 1969. The first celebration of Black History Month took place at Kent State one year later, from Jan. 2, 1970-Feb. 28, 1970.
Six years later, Black History Month was being celebrated all across the country in educational institutions, centers of black culture and community centers, both great and small. President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month, during the celebration of the United States Bicentennial.
He urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Now, Black History Month is observed in schools across the nation, by the U.S. government, and by the Department of Defense.
Over the course of the coming month, we will highlight some important historical milestones and some key African American figures in the miiltary and in aerospace.