A Century of Black Life, History, and Culture

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(First in a series of three)

Black History Month, or National African American History Month, is an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing the central role they have played in U.S. history.

The story of Black History Month begins in 1915, half a century after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States. Few could have imagined African Americans’ future contributions to music, art, and literature that would be recognized by the global community.

Credit for the evolving awareness of the true place of African Americans in history can, in large part, be attributed to one man: Carter G. Woodson. In 1915, he established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.

Woodson wanted to change the world’s perception of African Americans and recognize their contribution to American society and culture.

The Great Migration of African Americans from the South to industrial towns in the North began in the 1920s. By the 1960s, millions of African Americans had migrated north.

Each issue this month, The Beacon will chronologically present some historic milestones that took place during those decades.

The 1920s

– Claude McKay publishes a collection of his early poetry, Harlem Shadows. It becomes one of the most important early works of the Harlem Renaissance.

– A. Philip Randolph organizes the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first successful African-American trade union.

– Jazz trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong forms his band, the Hot Five. He becomes a jazz legend and a cultural icon.

– Langston Hughes publishes The Weary Blues, his first book of poetry. A pivotal force in the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes goes on to become one of the 20th century’s most recognized American writers.

The 1930s

Nine African-American youths are convicted of raping two White women in Scottsboro, Alabama. The “Scottsboro Boys” case later attracts national attention as a miscarriage of justice and helps fuel the civil rights movement.

The Supreme Court rules in the Norris v. Alabama case that a defendant has the right to a trial by jury of one’s peers. This ruling overturned the Scottsboro Boys’ convictions.

Sculptor Augusta Savage establishes the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts in New York, the largest art center in the nation at that time

– Singer Marion Anderson is denied permission by the Daughters of the Revolution to sing at their hall because she is an African American. Instead, Anderson performs at the Lincoln Memorial before an audience of 75,000.

– Track and field athlete Jesse Owens wins four gold medals in the Berlin Olympics, thwarting Adolf Hitler’s plan to use the games to demonstrate “Aryan supremacy.” 

– Joe Louis, the iconic “Brown Bomber,” becomes the heavyweight boxing champion of the world by defeating James J. Braddock. He will hold the belt for nearly 12 years, a boxing record.

The 1940s

– The first pilot training program for African Americans is established at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The Tuskegee Airmen serve heroically during World War II.

Benjamin O. Davis Sr. becomes the Army’s first African-American general. His son, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., commander of the Tuskegee Airmen, later becomes the Air Force’s first African-American general.

The interracial Congress of Racial Equality is formed in Chicago. It becomes famous for organizing the Freedom Rides of 1961.

Ebony, a magazine about African-American life and achievements, is founded. The magazine presents works by literary figures such as Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks. It becomes an instant success.

– Baseball legend Jackie Robinson becomes the first African American to break the color barrier when he is allowed to play in the major league.

President Harry Truman issues Executive Order 9981 desegregating the military, and more than 2.5 million African-American men register for the draft as the U.S. enters World War II. Though they experience discrimination, they continue to rise to the challenge to serve the nation.