Although Black History is all of our history, Black History Month has historically been a time when Blacks and African Americans take time out to learn and reflect on what our ancestors fought for in this country, since so much of that significant history was and continues to be left out of American history. But it has also been a time of rejoicing, celebrating, honoring, and thanking those same ancestors for the central role they played in U.S. history, and more importantly, for giving us hope. Black History Month grew out of “Negro History Week,” the brainchild of noted historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans in 1926. It is said that the first celebration of Black History Month took place at Kent State University in February of 1970. Then, six years later in 1976, 50 years from the first celebration of Negro History Week, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month, calling upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
So why is this time that we have specifically set aside still so important? Well, it is important because it is part of the Untold Story. Even as a Black kid growing up in the deep South, my formal primary and secondary education did not afford me the privilege of learning about the contributions of Black Americans, with the exception of a few notable figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I learned the most about Black History through my parents and church.
I quickly realized that much of Black History is left out of HIS Story. Recognizing that Black History is American History remains a challenge, so this time of year is still important for us to pay special honor and tribute to those upon whose shoulders we stand, particularly the untold stories, contributions, and sacrifices of our lineage ancestors.
Even though slavery undermined the entire foundation of America since the first slaves were brought to this country in 1619, Black Americans have persevered through the struggles. From slavery, the abolitionist movement, emancipation which led to the Civil War where 2.4 million Americans were killed and over 4 million slaves freed, the Reconstruction era, and other key milestones in American History – we honor the contributions of folks like Crispus Attucks, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Benjamin Banneker, and Harriet Tubman.
For the 20th Century Civil Rights Movement, we pay homage to many like W.E.B DuBois, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks.
In sports, science and medicine, and inventions, we honor the likes of Jackie Robinson, Wilma Rudolph, Charles Drew, the Flying Black Medics, Garrett Morgan, and Madame CJ Walker.
In government, we must not forget about the contributions of those like Hiram Revels as the first black U.S. senator, and P.B.S. Pinchback. Or even those right here in our own backyard, such as early settlers George Washington Bush who settled upon Bush Prairie and his son William Owen Bush who helped write some of the first state laws in Washington state.
And in the realm of arts and entertainment, we often think about cultural influences such as jazz and the Harlem Renaissance, and pay tribute to figures like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, and the sometimes-called father of jazz – Buddy Bolden. While these names typically rise to the top, we know the impact of art in the Black community is much broader.
The 2024 Black History theme from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) is “African Americans and the Arts” to recognize the impact of black art on our society that has been either minimized or remains part of the untold story. African American art, in all facets, from performing and visual arts to literature, music and other forms has been used for the expression of suffrage (e.g. spirituals, blues), the preservation of history, empowerment, cultural expression, joy, and more. Black History is woven into American history and art is one domain where the fabric is clearly seen.
There is no human history without Black History and Black Americans continue to greatly contribute to all our history. Negro History Week – Black History Month – African American History Month – while this specific time of year is important, we should strive for true American History where all of our stories are told. This is why we are making history right here in Washington state by elevating voices of marginalized communities through groundbreaking agencies such as the Office of Equity, our Ethnic Commissions, and other entities such as our Business Resource Groups (BRG) focused on state employees. As a BRG, Blacks United in Leadership & Diversity (BUILD) is putting its stamp on the history of Washington state government to increase opportunities for Black state employees and provide an avenue to advance equity and further belonging. An African proverb says, “Until the lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the hero.” If we want to see continued change and progress, your voice is needed toward action, not just in the month of February, but every day, hour, and minute. Bring out your lion so that the untold becomes told.
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