As Rosemary Sadlier, president of the Ontario Black History Society, noted: “As a group, which has roots dating back to 1603, and which has helped to defend, clear, build, and farm this country, the presence of people of African descent is well-established, but not well-known. It is not well known because history has tended to record the acts of rich and powerful Caucasian men to the exclusion of any other group. The celebration of black history is an attempt to have the achievements of people of African descent in Canada and around the world included.”
Black History Month actually started out as black history week in the United States in 1926. It was the brainchild of Carter G. Woodson, a black Harvard-educated historian who received his PhD in 1912, preceded by only one other African American, W.E.B. Du Bois.
Woodson (1875-1950) was the seventh of nine children born to free slaves in Virginia. Not unusually, the family was poor. They owned a 10-acre tobacco farm and young Carter contributed by working on the farm during the days. He learned to read using the bible and his father’s newspapers in the evening. As a teenager, he worked in a coal mine. The family later moved to West Virginia, where at 18 Woodson enrolled in high school and completed his diploma in less than two years. Woodson then taught in Fayette County and accepted a position as the principal of his high school alma mater.
He began to study part-time at Berea College and earned a bachelor of literature in 1903. Woodson then took up a position as a school supervisor in the Philippines, where he stayed for three years. He travelled throughout Asia, North Africa, and Europe and attended history classes at the Sorbonne becoming fluent in French. In 1908, he returned to the U.S. to enter the University of Chicago where he earned a master’s degree in history. He returned to teaching while completing his doctoral dissertation. After he completed his PhD, he continued to teach in the public school system. His professional appointments also included a teaching position and deanship at Howard University and a deanship at West Virginia Collegiate Institute. But much of his professional career was spent as a researcher and writer with the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History that he founded in 1915.
In 1915, the destruction of slavery was still palpable. There was a growing racial pride and consciousness, with black community leaders working to organize celebrations and events to keep up the momentum of further improvements to the lives of their people. Woodson participated in an exhibit of black history at the 50th anniversary of the emancipation held at the Coliseum in Chicago. The three-week event attracted more than 12,000 visitors. Woodson knew he was on to something. At a meeting that was held at the Wabash YMCA with other black leaders, the association was born.
One year later, in 1916, he established the Journal of Negro History as a vehicle for contributions by other black scholars. Woodson encouraged people in the black community to publicize their findings. In 1924, his fraternity brothers created Negro History and Literature Week, later renamed Negro Achievement Week. In February 1926, wanting to have a greater national impact, Woodson sent out a press release under the name of the association, announcing Negro History Week.
As Prof. Daryl Michael Scott wrote: “It is commonly said that Woodson selected February to encompass the birthdays of two great Americans who played a prominent role in shaping black history, namely Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, whose birthdays are the 12th and the 14th, respectively. More importantly, he chose them for reasons of tradition. Since Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the black community, along with other Republicans, had been celebrating the fallen president’s birthday. And since the late 1890s, black communities across the country had been celebrating Douglass’. Well aware of the pre-existing celebrations, Woodson built Negro History Week around traditional days of commemorating the black past. He was asking the public to extend their study of black history, not to create a new tradition. In doing so, he increased his chances for success. . . . Yet Woodson was up to something more than building on tradition. Without saying so, he aimed to reform it from the study of two great men to a great race.”
The Negro history movement really took hold in both schools and the community. In 1937, Woodson established the Negro History Bulletin, which focused on an annual theme. Negro History Week continued to thrive after Woodson’s death in 1950. In the 1960s, some communities had expanded Negro History Week to Black History Month. Since 1976, 50 years after the association used its influence to make the shift, each year the U.S. president issues a proclamation endorsing the annual theme.
In Canada in 1995, on a motion introduced by Jean Augustine, the first black woman elected to the House of Commons, the House officially recognized February as Black History Month. In 2008, following a motion by Senator Donald Oliver, the first black man appointed to the Senate, the Senate officially recognized the same.
In his famous work written in 1933, The Mis-Education of the Negro, Woodson wrote: “If you can control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.”
Despite the success of the Black History movement, we continue to live with the legacy of the exclusions caused by white male domination and it is our duty to right the wrong, as best we can, with the tools that we have, and to acknowledge the achievements of the broad shoulders we stand on, including the black ones.
List of web sites to consult:
- Association for the Study of African American Life and History
- Historica-Dominion Institute, Black History Canada
- Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, Fo Niemi’s article: “Some Unsung Heroes For Black History Month”
- Toronto District School Board, African Heritage Resource Guide