NEW YORK (PIX11) — Black History Month began in 1926. At the time, one of the country’s foremost educators, Carter G. Woodson, the second African American person to achieve a PhD from Harvard, originated the idea.
It was in opposition to a commonly held belief in higher education at the time, as said by philosopher, religion scholar and historian Georg Hegel that Africa “is no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit.” Its descendants in the New World were widely thought by mainstream American culture to also have minimal historical or cultural importance.
As Dwight McBride, Ph.D., the president of The New School and professor of African American Literature and History pointed out, Black History Month is rooted in the desire to show the world that there is Black history.
“People like Carter G. Woodson, the father of African American, or Black History Month,” McBride said in a recent interview, found that “it was so important because the way we were telling this history [before] was very different. It was very whitewashed, if you will.”
McBride is an embodiment of Woodson’s vision. Of the 5,300 universities and colleges in the U.S., there are only about 400 Black presidents. The percentage drops among colleges whose student bodies are not majority Black.
McBride said that Woodson first created what was called Negro History Week in 1926 and it grew from there.
“It has really done that work of bringing Black history to the center, as opposed to being on the margins,” McBride said.
Also in 1926, something else was happening in the broader American culture. It originated right here in New York, and resonated worldwide. The Harlem Renaissance was the result of Black writers, musicians, artists, and intellectuals coming together. They embraced the idea of a Black history celebration, allowing it to begin prominently, and grow.
“It was an incredibly rich moment and it’s one that had impact probably across not only black culture but the American culture in general much more broadly,” McBride said.
That auspicious start helped to put the week of Black History celebrations on the calendar permanently. It also provided momentum for it to expand to a monthlong festival.
It’s held in February, the shortest month, which means it has the fewest days of acknowledgment of Black culture and achievement. McBride says that it’s not intentional, and need not lessen its importance. The reason it’s in February is simple, he said.
“Because it was the birth of Frederick Douglass, the famous abolitionist, and Abraham Lincoln, President Lincoln. So it was intended to first recognize those two, sort of giants in this world,” he said.
By the 1970s, Gerald Ford became the first president to formally proclaim Black History Month. Every president has made similar proclamations since.
McBride said that it shows a change in American culture over time, but he also warns that newer developments, like the rise of white supremacy, and protests over George Floyd’s killing, show that exploring Black culture, music, art, literature, and History in this month is as crucial as ever.
“There’s a lot of misinformation, and misunderstanding, and a lack of reverence and respect for history,” he said. “We should be doing better than we’re doing.”
However, he added, that doesn’t mean that a lot isn’t being done.
“It is extraordinary, that sort of moment that we’re living through,” he said. “There’s more Black content on TV, streaming platforms, etc. than I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime. There’s a lot of richness happening in the cultural world. That’s the thing that keeps me optimistic.”