February is Black History Month, which recognizes the many, often overlooked, contributions African Americans have made to America’s history. The evolution of Black History Month has an interesting history of its own, and dates back to the end of the Civil War.
The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, ending slavery, and was codified in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. And yet, it may come as a surprise to many young students, it wasn’t until the 1960s—just over 50 years ago, and 100 years after the 14th Amendment promised that the government would enforce “equal protection of the laws”—that African Americans were finally guaranteed the rights that the Constitution says every citizen should enjoy.
Black History Month got its start in 1915, on the 50th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, when Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland founded what is today the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. In 1926, the group instituted Negro History Week, choosing the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass, on February 14, and Abraham Lincoln, on February 12.
Over time, cities across American began recognizing Negro History Week, which evolved into Black History Month on college campuses, thanks to the increasing attention the civil rights movement was garnering in the 1950s and 60s.
Until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, African Americans could be denied entry to theaters, restaurants, hotels, swimming pools, libraries and public schools, and could be denied a job based on race. Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law, African Americans could encounter state and local barriers, designed to deny them their right to vote.
While African Americans may have obtained legally mandated equality in civil rights and voting rights, social mores took a bit longer to evolve. Marriage between Caucasians and African Americans was still illegal until the Supreme Court, in 1967, ruled that prohibiting interracial marriage on state and local levels was unconstitutional.
Even with this progress, textbooks and classrooms in the 1960s and ’70s mainly provided the history of Caucasian Americans when teaching American history. Despite being a crucial component in the American story, the lives of many important African Americans were hardly ever mentioned in history classes.
Then, in 1976, President Gerald Ford took the occasion of America’s bicentennial year to officially recognize Black History Month, asking Americans to, “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Some of those accomplishments include:
- African American Matthew Henson and Admiral Robert Peary, becoming the first men to reach the North Pole in 1909
- Track star Jesse Owens winning four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics in 1936
- Actress Hattie McDaniel receiving an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1940
- Jackie Robinson, of the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African American to play major league baseball in 1947
- Gwendolyn Brooks winning the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1950
- Barack Obama, a Harvard graduate, former Illinois state senator, and former U.S. senator from Illinois, becoming president in 2009
Every day, each of us come in contact with things invented by African Americans. Here are a few examples:
- Potato chips – Created by George Crum in 1853 while working at a resort in Saratoga Springs, New York.
- The Supersoaker – After a successful career at NASA, Lonnie G. Johnson invented the high-performance, pressurized water gun, which became the #1 selling toy of the 1990s.
- Mobile communication – In 1887, Granville T. Woods invented the induction telegraph, which allowed train-to-train and train-to-station communication, preventing many rail accidents.
- The gas mask – Invented by Garrett Morgan in 1912, the gas mask saved thousands of soldiers’ lives during World War I, when poisonous gas was first used as a weapon. If that weren’t enough, he also invented the modern traffic signal.
- The light bulb – Edison may have invented the concept, but Lewis Latimer added the carbon filament that made lightbulbs last longer and made them commercially viable.
- Open-heart surgery – Daniel Hale Williams established the Provident Hospital and Training School Association in Chicago, insisting on the highest standards concerning sanitary conditions. In 1893, he performed the first open-heart surgery, which was also the first time a chest cavity had ever been opened without the patient dying of an infection.
- The blood bank – Dr. Charles Drew invented a technique for the long-term preservation of blood plasma. Prior to his discovery, blood could only be stored for two days. Dr. Drew also discovered that everyone has the same type of plasma, regardless of blood type, making plasma transfusions universal.
Other African Americans who have made the world a better place, are Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nat King Cole, Alvin Ailey, Berry Gordy, Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Althea Gibson, Thurgood Marshall, and the list could go on and on.
American history has benefited from the skills and talents of people from every race, religion, and ethnic background. Celebrating Black History Month is a way for Americans to express gratitude to members of the African American community who have given our country so much, and whose achievements went unrecognized for so long.