Black History Month Tells Story of Determination and Triumph

By Louise Fenner
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - Each February, Black History Month tells of the struggles of millions of American citizens over the most devastating obstacles - slavery, prejudice, poverty - and looks at their contributions to the nation’s cultural and political life.

2007 marks the 81st annual celebration since Carter G. Woodson, a noted scholar and historian, instituted Negro History Week in 1926.  He chose the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and the black 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

The first official Black History Month was announced in 1976 by President Gerald R. Ford, who urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” 

Woodson, the son of former slaves in Virginia, realized that the struggles and achievements of Americans of African descent were being ignored or misrepresented.  He founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASALH), which publishes a scholarly journal and sets the theme for Black History Month each year.

ASALH has its headquarters in Washington, where Woodson lived from 1915 until his death in 1950.  His home is designated a national historic site.

The theme for 2007, “From Slavery to Freedom: Africans in the Americas,” takes its name from historian John Hope Franklin’s 1947 book From Slavery to Freedom, John Fleming, ASALH president, said in a telephone interview.

“Certainly, struggle has been an ongoing theme in our history from the very beginning,” said Fleming, who is vice president of museums for the Cincinnati Museum Center.

He believes Black History Month should focus on both positive and negative aspects of the black experience.  “We were not slaves prior to being captured in Africa,” said Fleming, “and while slavery was part of our experience for 250 years, we have a hundred-and-some years in freedom that we also need to deal with. That’s not to diminish the slavery period, but it’s not just the most encompassing thing.”

Fleming said he has seen “substantial progress on many fronts,” noting that about 10 percent of congressional representatives are black as well as hundreds of mayors across the United States. “There has been substantial progress in moving into the middle class and various professions,” Fleming said.  (See related article.)

“At the same time there are still major problems that have to be addressed, one being the permanent underclass in urban areas now - that we don’t seem to be able to break that cycle of poverty. And there are still some major rural pockets of poverty,” he continued.

“I’m glad to see the National African American Museum being developed on the Mall, which will tell a much broader story,” said Fleming.  In 2003, President George W. Bush signed legislation to establish the museum on the National Mall.  (See related article.)

“From talking with young people, black and white students, the lack of knowledge about African-American history is just appalling,” Fleming said.  This applies to the general population, he said: “That’s why Carter G. Woodson came out with Negro History Week in the first place.”

“I think that African-American history gets more attention during February than during any other time of year, “ he said, “and I think it’s an opportunity for us in the field to emphasize that it is something that should be studied throughout the year.”

Each year, the U.S. president honors Black History Month, or African American History Month as it is also called, with a proclamation and a celebration at the White House.  States and cities hold their own events around the country, and media feature topics related to black history.

“African Americans have been an integral part of America for generations, and our nation is stronger because of their contributions,” Bush said in this year’s proclamation, issued on January 26.  “All Americans can be proud of the progress we have made, yet the work … is not done.” (See related text.)

For more information on U.S. society, see African Americans.

More information on African-American life and history is available at the ASALH Web site.