From The Grio — Black History Month. Today, it’s taken for granted that February is when we celebrate the history and accomplishments of African-Americans. Yet, Black History Month represents only the opening salvo in an ongoing fight to include African-Americans in American history, both in the classroom and in society. And that fight shows no sign of being settled anytime soon.
For decades after the Civil War, African-American history was defined by the idea that ex-slaves came from a sort of nothingness. For centuries, blacks in the United States had been considered property, beasts of burden, so how could these “objects” have a history? As a result, African Americans were typically defined through the eyes of other, usually the writings of whites, particularly Southern white historians, who depicted blacks as happy, mindless slaves.
At the dawn of the 20th Century, W.E.B. DuBois, the great African-American intellectual and historian, was one of the first African-American historians to attack the white hegemony over American history. DuBois tried to transform the story of African Americans from those of property manipulated by whites, to human beings who were integral parts of the American experience. But it wasn’t easy.
“DuBois, the preeminent historian of the time, couldn’t get a job,” Dr. Blair Kelley, associate professor of history at North Carolina State. Dr. Kelley is the author of Right To Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson. “But DuBois made sure that his historical work was exhaustive and that it served a purpose in the struggle (for civil rights).”
The idea of a period to celebrate black history was born in 1926, when Dr. Carter G. Woodson, noting the February birthdates of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, declared that period Negro History Week. That Americans should celebrate and take pride in the accomplishments of black people was a revolutionary idea for the time, .
Other African-American historians like Rayford Logan, John Hope Franklin and Charles Wesley, thrust forward a history that included African-Americans into the very fiber of America history. Their research and publications grew the African-American historical canon and rediscovered African-American history that had been previously ignored. But the problem is that much of this research was outside of the classroom, and any student interested in reading this African-American history had to do so independently.
Many black students did, creating even more demand to find out more about this hidden history, particular as the struggle for civil rights reached a fever pitch. Leaders like Malcolm X talked about a pan Africanism that broadened African American history from the shores of America to the shores of Africa. In 1962, longtime Ebony editor Lerone Bennett published, Beyond the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America. And the Black Power movement rekindled a black pride in all things African-American.
In November 1968, Life magazine recognized this interest in black history and commissioned a series called The Search for a Black Past. In this historical series, African-American historian John Hope Franklin wrote a series of articles about slavery rebellions like Paul Cinque and the Armistad saga, Nat Turner, and the African Americans who came to the rescue of abolitionist John Brown. This was a history unknown to the mostly white Life magazine readers.
While African-American history was becoming mainstream, American textbooks of the 50s and 60s continued to reflect a white male dominated point of view. Besides Crispus Attucks, the revolutionary hero of the Boston Massacre, most African-Americans remained scrubbed out of American history.
In the December 1968 issue of Ebony, an African-American magazine modeled after Life, the magazine ran an article titled “Black History in Schools”. It recounted an October 1968 boycott by 30,000 black Chicago area high school students, who demanded that their textbooks include African American history as part of the curriculum before they went back to classes.