Celebrating Black History Month and Looking Forward

We support and embrace the desire for a greater, renewed dialogue in our community going forward. Today, however, I want to look back and recognize the history and establishment of Black History Month in America.

To our Harrison Family,

I think it is safe to say that celebrating Black History Month in February 2021 may feel slightly different, considering some of the events of the past year. The national conversation and the desire for a greater, renewed dialogue provides a different backdrop that will likely (and hopefully) progress in the coming months and years. We support and embrace that process in our community going forward. Today, however, I want to look back and recognize the history and establishment of Black History Month in America.

This year marks the 45th year that we nationally recognize Black History Month, since President Gerald Ford established that practice in 1976. But that was a transitional recognition since other celebrations of the achievements of Black Americans and those of African descent began prior to that. The story of Black History Month, also known as African American History Month, began in 1915, half a century after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States.

That year, Harvard-trained historian, Carter G. Woodson, and well-known minister, Jesse E. Mooreland, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) dedicated to promoting the achievements of Black Americans. By 1926, the group sponsored a national Negro History Week, celebrated during the second week of February in recognition of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass (February 12th and 14th, respectively).

Schools and communities nationwide organized celebrations and lectures in the coming years and the next few decades saw cities and states issuing proclamations annually recognizing Negro History Week. By the mid-1960’s, and rooted in the Civil Rights Movement, this celebration expanded on college campuses. The first official recognition of Black History Month occurred on the campus of Kent State University in 1970. This all lead to Gerald Ford’s action in 1976 that has carried forward to today.

The basis of the initiative, in the mind of founder Carter G. Woodson, was that “teaching black history was essential to physical and intellectual survival of the race within the broader society.” As he launched Negro History Week in 1926, Mr. Woodson stated:

“If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record and did not appreciate the value of tradition. Where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as depicted in The Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization.”

It is both interesting and telling when you hear the words of a prominent and influential person nearly 100 years ago after they’re spoken. Reading them today, we have the knowledge and perspective of hindsight. Native Americans have fought to reestablish their traditions since then and their fight continues. Woodson referenced the Jewish (Hebrew) people as an example to aspire to in valuing history and tradition… and that was before they endured the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Perhaps we are at another pivotal point in history and generations from now, they will look back on these times and recognize it as such.

Together for Harrison Township,
Lou Manzo
Your Mayor