In tracing the roots of Black History Month, we embark on a journey initiated by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1926. Originally designated as Negro History Week, this celebration evolved into a month-long tribute in 1976, under then president Gerald Ford’s proclamation. The decision to extend the educational week to a month was not merely an administrative decision; it stemmed from dialogues with civil rights leaders seeking national support for unity and equality.
Reflecting on personal experiences within the New Jersey public school system, the significance of Black History Month was invaluable. Going beyond mere acknowledgment, students engaged in short plays and independent research assignments and heard firsthand accounts from elders who navigated eras before and during the Civil Rights Movement. The curriculum delved into the lives of Black educators, inventors, scientists, doctors, lawyers, musicians and athletes. We learned about icons like Mary Jane McLeod Bethune, a civil rights activist and founder of the National Council of Negro Women in 1935, Garrett Morgan who was the creator of the three-positional traffic light and the gas mask and Dr. Charles Richard Drew who discovered a way to store blood plasma and organized America’s first large-scale blood bank.
These individuals and so many more emerged as beacons of inspiration, igniting a spirit of determination among myself and my classmates aspiring to break into career fields that lacked ethnic diversity.
However, as the narrative shifts to the modern day, an unpleasant reality surfaces. While certain cities and neighborhoods fully embrace Black History Month, not all communities afford it the recognition it deserves, including the one in which we reside. The month stands as more than a celebration; it is a crucial homage to the often-overlooked accomplishments of Black Americans. It serves as a powerful tool in disrupting systemic racism and fostering true equity.
Also, keep in mind the glaring omissions within standard history textbooks. Black history is often confined to mentions of the slave trade and the Civil Rights Movement. The historical richness and the myriad contributions of Black innovators, leaders, and trailblazers across
various fields are routinely sidelined. This exclusionary practice further emphasizes the urgency and relevance of Black History Month—a dedicated space for the comprehensive exploration of Black history beyond the limited scope presented in conventional educational materials.
Today, amidst widening racial gaps in homeownership, marriage, employment and incarceration compared to the 1960s, acknowledging and understanding our history becomes imperative. We should take heed to George Santayana’s poignant words, “Those who cannot remember their past are condemned to repeat it.” Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s prophetic statement in ‘The Mis-Education of the Negro” echoes this sentiment: “If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”
“Moving from Heritage to Hope” is not just a great title for a historical account but a call to action, shedding light on the transformative power of education and the pivotal role Black History Month plays in shaping a more inclusive and equitable future.