Columns, Opinion

Black History Month has a righteous origin

(Photo courtesy of Delia Gillis)

Feb. 1 starts one of my favorite months.

Around my home it means birthday celebrations for my husband, watching a Super Bowl game that never seems to have the Kansas City Chiefs playing – at least not since I was a toddler in 1969 – and romantic Valentine’s Day flowers.

February also means my professional career goes into overdrive when my inbox is filled with near daily requests for Black History Month lectures, events and activities. I still remember when my oldest son was in kindergarten and said he “didn’t like Black History Month.” I was shocked to learn that he equated the month with mommy being “gone too much” while he was saddled with different baby sitters or nannies.

My mumblings may sound selfish, but even the late Dr. John Hope Franklin, dean of African American historians, refused to accept Black History Month engagements. Why? Franklin believed it should be studied and valued all year. I agree wholeheartedly, but I am not sure if I would even have a job if I just refused requests in February.

Despite the disruptions in my personal life, Black History Month has a righteous origin. In 1915, Harvard educated and fellow Virginian, Dr. Carter Goodwin Woodson founded the Association for the Study of African American Life & History. He became the “Father of Black History” because the traditional organizations of the time were segregated and excluded African Americans. Besides a journal and teacher’s bulletin, he founded Negro History Week. It was observed in February to honor the birthdays of the “great emancipator” Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Douglass was believed to have been born on Valentine’s Day. Note to hubby – that means chocolates and roses!

Negro History Week grew into a month in 1976. So, to be clear, no one gave the African American community the shortest month of the year. The month originated out of the African American community’s desire for progress and equality by honoring those who fought for freedom. Black History Month is not only celebrated in the United States, but Canada, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Ireland with various dates throughout the year.

Also, Lincoln was not exactly an emancipator. He originally signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 as a military measure and only in those states in “rebellion.” Yet, that meant my great-great-grandmother Celie Daves Hayes was born into freedom in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, in 1865. That is the same county with some of the highest if not highest numbers of enslaved people and participants in the Confederate army for the state of Virginia.

As for Douglass, he is doing “great things” and turned 200 last year. He had a beloved dog named Frank, has an award-winning book and will be coming to the UCM campus on March 22. Well, his traveling exhibit is coming to us and will be on loan to UCM from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of History in New York. And check out Dr. Jeff Williams’ book talk during Valentine’s week. He will be discussing the acclaimed “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” first published in 1845.

In all seriousness, I am dedicated to my profession and craft as an historian. I am motivated daily to tell the story of the African American past to my students and the wider community. Just this week, my graduate students expressed amazement to learn that George Washington was a president and not just any slave owner, but one who ferociously recaptured those who sought freedom and ran away from him. Ask the enslaved Harry if he considers George Washington an emancipator or slave catcher.

When the requests come over the next few weeks, I will be fueled to teach and write about the African American experience when I learned just last week that four African American women, all graduates of UCM, were trying to dine in Madrid’s Calle Mayor entertainment district and the waiter basically asked them to leave. Their business was not welcome. Stories that may seem random and anecdotal to some are the threads to an entire people’s history. It’s a history I love to tell all year, but I will take February. Accepting all requests! Join me later this month for “FOR THE CULTURE,” a showcase of African American life and culture performed by UCM students in honor of Black History Month.

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