Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history. – Carter G. Woodson
Carter G. Woodson was born in Virginia, 10 years after the fall of the Confederacy. Working as a sharecropper and a miner, he rarely had time to attend school until the age of 20. He would devote the rest of his life to study, becoming known as “The Father of African-American History.”
Through his studies, Woodson found that African-American contributions to history "were overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them." He concluded that racial prejudice "is merely the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind."
Black History Month, which Woodson founded as Negro History Week in 1926, was his effort to combat that tradition. Chosen to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, considered heroes by most Black Americans, the second week in February was set aside to celebrate Black history.
The first year, education officials of only three states and two cities recognized the event, but by 1929 it was being promoted in nearly every state in the nation. In 1970, Black students at Kent State University celebrated the first unofficial Black History Month and in 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized the event, saying,
The last quarter-century has finally witnessed significant strides in the full integration of black people into every area of national life. In celebrating Black History Month, we can take satisfaction from this recent progress in the realization of the ideals envisioned by our Founding Fathers. But, even more than this, we can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.
In the intervening 40 years, we’ve seen remarkable progress in racial justice, and also heartbreaking setbacks. There are some in our own community who feel Black History Month is unnecessary – as there were in Woodson’s own day. And their essential point is valid: Black history is American History, and its teaching should not be relegated to one month per year. But that isn’t the point of Black History Month.
The American Dream remains perilously out of reach for many people of color. The National Urban League Equality Index, a comprehensive comparison of Black America’s status in the areas of economics, health, education, social justice and civic engagement, stands at 72.2%.
Racial disparity won’t disappear if we simply ignore it. Justice will not be achieved unless we actively seek it out. Black History Month not only serves as a reminder of what our forbearers have achieved, but as an inspiration for the journey that remains before us.
Marc Morial is the CEO and president of the National Urban League.