Every February, teachers in Canada and the United States teach students about key African American individuals who helped fuel the civil rights movement.
Almost every student at California Baptist University received at least 12 years of education before attending college, but how many of them know how Black History Month began?
Charles Smith, a history major, and Jessica Rankins, a psychology major, were asked if they knew of the observance’s origin or creator.
“No clue,” Smith said.
“I don’t know about how it began,” Rankins said. “I just know about some of the figures who are recognized during it.”
According to an essay written by Daryl Michael Scott, which can be found on africanamericanhistorymonth.gov, the observance that eventually became black history month was created by Harvard alumnus Carter G. Woodson in 1925. At that time, it was known as Negro History Week and was first celebrated in February 1926 during the week of the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
The purpose of Negro History Week was to raise awareness of African American contributions to American civilization and started with the founding of Woodson’s Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History).
“The response was overwhelming. Black history clubs sprang up, teachers demanded materials to instruct their pupils and progressive whites, not simply white scholars and philanthropists, stepped forward to endorse the effort,” Scott said.
The expansion and awareness of Negro History Week continued to spread around the country during the 1960s, and President Gerald R. Ford expanded it to a month in 1976, urging Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
After nearly 86 years, is Black History Month still relevant to CBU students? Amy Stumpf, associate professor of society and religion, believes it is.
“Why not? If just one or two people get a good look at where we’ve been, where we are and where we could go, that is worth it,” Stumpf said. “If one or two people could see the terrible effects of racism and change their own attitudes and behaviors, that is worth it. If just one or two of my students grow into a man or woman who stands against racism and for justice, that is worth it.”
The observance also finds meaning in Rankins and Smith’s lives as well.
“Black History Month, to me, is a time to remember the contributions and sacrifices of those who came before that got me and my people to where we are today,” Smith said.
“It’s a time for not only African Americans but everyone to remember influential figures in black history,” Rankins said. “It’s a reminder of how far AfricanAmericans have come and for people to understand some of the major changes that occurred.”
While Smith and Rankins’ families do not do anything specific to celebrate, Smith’s church, True Vine Bible Fellowship in Lompoc, Ca., holds a cultural celebration in which kids can talk about people from all minorities that have made contributions to American society.
Some well-known celebrities contest black history month. Actor Morgan Freeman has said he does not participate, saying, “I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history.” Similarly, African writer, scholar and director Owen ’Alik Shahadah said, “Black history month without a memory of Africa is moot,” in response to the commercialization of black celebrities during black history month.
The question remains: should Black History Month still be observed?
“We have made significant progress to alleviate the most terrible displays of racism,” Stumpf said. “That in itself is well worth celebrating. The work of [Martin Luther King, Jr.] and the Civil Rights movement is well worth studying and celebrating.
“Kids need to be able to have a better grasp on their own history,” Smith said.
“Racism is as destructive to the victims as to the perpetrators, whose hearts are consumed by fear and hate,” Stumpf said. “We fear and hate what we do not know, and the way we can overcome that ignorance is by study, relationships and courage. [Black history month] is a designated time to consider and study those things.”