In 1926, historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History he co-founded declared the second week of February – which included the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass – Negro History Week, with a straightforward purpose: encourage the coordinated teaching of American Negro history in America’s public schools. Woodson stated why the endeavor mattered:
- “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization.”
The inaugural observance garnered limited support – the states of Delaware, North Carolina, and West Virginia, and the cities of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. However, by 1929, Dr. Woodson reported that all but two states “with considerable Negro population had made the event known to that state’s teachers and distributed official literature associated with the event.” The black church and press worked to help Negro History Week grow in popularity over the following decades. The annual rehearsing of positive black contributions to American history gave a factual foundation for black “radicals” and white “progressives” (then a more constructive force for black interests) pursuing the remarkable black civil rights gains of the twentieth century.
In 1969, black students at Kent State University proposed expanding Negro – now Black – History Week to all of February, and celebrated the first Black History Month on their campus a year later. In 1976, Black History Month “went national” as part of America’s bicentennial celebration. Yet Black History Month was not was not a government concession to black people. Instead, the Black History Movement was a gift from blacks – though politically “weak” and largely disenfranchised – to America.
Yet blacks now seem to trade the pride their gift provided in favor of petty concerns about when or how others remember it.
Negro History Week’s launch was not to create a special time of black remembrance, but to accurately present the accomplishments of America’s blacks for inclusion into the national pantheon of remembered deeds. Indeed, when Dr. Woodson said:
- “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”
the statement crossed color lines, as blacks are no less American than other U.S. citizens. However, instead of continuing the Black History Movement to further wed the Black Experience to the American Experiment, many now use that the annual focus on black history to drive wedges between Americans, on the basis of race.
One wedge is that of negative information. Every February, instead of extolling the contributions of Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman, John Hanson, or others to promote American black achievements, many blacks choose to rehearse the ugly past, with images:
Dr. Woodson knew blacks suffered atrocities; they preceded the launch of Negro History Week, and continued as it grew. Woodson also knew those events neither represented black accomplishment nor elevated black people. For blacks to overcome the atrocities, Woodson understood that stressing what the Negro had done for America, mattered more than focusing on what some, even many, in America had done to him.
Another wedge is that of inaccuracy. Some black “accomplishments” are more mythological than historical. Two such myths involve Dr. Charles Richard Drew. First, many credit Drew with discovering that plasma could be separated from whole blood and stored; he did not, and neither Drew, nor his colleagues, ever made such claims. Drew’s accomplishments, which include supervising programs to ship plasma to British and American soldiers, establishing uniform procedures for mass blood collection and plasma processing, and being the first American black to earn a Doctor of Science in Medicine degree, are impressive without embellishment; they simply do not include those medical science breakthroughs.
The second Drew myth says that he died, following a traffic accident, because a white hospital refused him a blood transfusion. However, a passenger reported that everyone in the car, including Drew, were treated immediately and, due to the severity of Drew’s injuries, a blood transfusion might have killed him sooner.
Another set of myths surround the Tuskegee Airmen, of World War II fame, including:
- • They never lost a bomber under escort,
• They were the first to shoot down a German jet fighter, and
• That Tuskegee Airmen units were all black
these, and other assertions, though featured in the 2012 movie “Red Tails” are simply not true, according to documents maintained by Tuskegee University.
Other statements of black accomplishments are simply false, including claims that blacks invented the traffic signal, the gas mask, the air conditioner, etc.
Dr. Woodson worked to address the “lack of accurate written history about the experiences and contributions of Americans of African descent”; America’s historical record, being incomplete, was also inaccurate. A capable historian understands the importance of accuracy; inaccuracy destroys an historian’s credibility, and lessens interest in the subjects of his study. Had Woodson attempted to foist embellished or false stories about blacks upon the American nation, Negro History Week would have “died in the womb”, taking national regard for blacks – not high at the time – to even lower levels.
Negro History Week owed its launch and success to dual loves – of black Americans and of the American nation – which elevated both of those beloveds. That love is increasingly replaced with open animosity toward the nation and her white people. Positive images and accounts of past black contributions are replaced with images and accounts of an horrific past that the nation shed both tears and blood to put behind her. Exaggerations and falsehoods diminish the witness of truthful recollections of heroic black accomplishments.
What a learned man of color gave to unite and elevate his people and nation, others, primarily of the same color, now pervert to the detriment of the same. Black History Month needs to return to its origins when it was celebrated as Negro History Week or, soon, it may not be worth celebrating at all.