Black History Month: Five major events and figures

When it first began in 1926, Black History Month lasted only a week.  Several decades later, it would transformed into a federally recognized annual observance. 

Based on his conviction that the study of history can mold society for the better, Harvard-educated historian Carter G. Woodson, along with distinguished minister Jesse E. Moorland, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNHL) in 1915.  Woodson believed that prejudices against African-Americans were socially constructed as “merely the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind.”

In 1926, the organization introduced  “Negro History Week” in the second week of February to coincide with the anniversary of the birthdays of President Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass; two figures who greatly impacted African-American history. In the following decades, Woodson’s initiative gained momentum with mayors, schools, and historical societies across the country.  In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford expanded the celebration to the entire month. 

But the annual celebration is not without its critics. Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman during an interview with "60 Minutes" asked, "Why would you relegate my history to a single month?” 

Joseph Wayne, an African-American principal in a California high school, encapsulated the debate in a 1994 Newsweek editorial saying that “Black contribution to American history is so rich and varied that attempting to confine the discussion and investigation to four weeks a year tends to trivialize the momentous impact that blacks have had on American society.” 

For President Barack Obama, it is a "story of resilience and perseverance" that has to be told.  “We celebrate the rich legacy of  African-Americans and honoring the remarkable contributions they have made to perfecting our Union,” Obama said in a White House proclamation.

Here are five major events and figures that resonate with African-Americans:  

1. W.E.B. Du Bois

Du Bois was an American sociologist, writer, historian, and civil rights activist.  He was also the first African-American to receive a doctorate from Harvard University. Du Bois was catapulted into the national spotlight by the Niagara Movement, a civil rights organization he helped to found in 1905, and which advocated a more militant approach towards disenfranchisement and segregation issues. 

He was an ardent advocate of Pan-Africanism, a notion that promotes African solidarity against racial discrimination and the continent’s colonization. A prolific writer and contributor to African-American literature, DuBois published 19 books and numerous articles, such as “Black Reconstruction in America,” and his magnum opus, “The Souls of Black Folk.”

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