|One of the American Wing’s period rooms,|
depicting the home of a wealthy Philadelphian.
Historians, curators, and collectors of the early 20th century generally had a fairly limited view of whose “efforts and sacrifices” were worth remembering. Working people and the poor rarely played a part in their accounts of the past. The existence of slavery was acknowledged but its significance was minimized. In some cases, authors felt that slavery was an embarrassing aberration that was best glossed over, while others upheld the view that it had been a benign and paternalistic institution. And it must be said that many white Americans simply didn’t think that black Americans had contributed much to the nation, nor did they think they really belonged as members of the national community.
|Dr. Carter G. Woodson|
One of the most important individuals in this movement—and the reason why we have Black History Month today—was Carter G. Woodson. Woodson was born in Virginia in 1875, the son of former slaves. Largely self-educated as a young man, he eventually completed a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University in 1912, becoming only the second African-American to earn a doctorate. In 1915, he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and became the editor of the Journal of Negro History. Woodson believed that prejudice was “the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind.” Education, then, would be key to bringing about social change.
|Negro History Week Bulletin,|
1946, with message from
By the 1940s, Negro History Week had expanded to the entire month of February in some localities, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s encouraged the trend in that direction. The official shift from Negro History Week to Black History Month came in 1976, as it was officially recognized by President Gerald Ford as part of the Bicentennial commemoration.
Carter Woodson hoped that Negro History Week would eventually die out because it would become commonplace to teach black history as an integral part of US history. That hasn’t happened yet, but it certainly is true that Americans today are more aware of the importance of black history (witness the overwhelming response to the recent opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture). And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that since black history is so intertwined with broader US history, it shouldn’t really be that difficult to find it at the Alice—we just might have to look a little bit harder to find it. Over the next month, I’ll be telling some of these stories.
“Origins of Black History Month,” Association for the Study of African American Life and History