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Celebration of Black History strikes chord

Ninety years after the first recognition, interest grows

Cynthia E. Griffin | 2/20/2015, midnight
When Harvard-educated historian, author and journalist Carter G. Woodson and the organization he founded—the Association for the Study of Negro ...
Cover Design by Andrew Nunez

When Harvard-educated historian, author and journalist Carter G. Woodson and the organization he founded—the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH)—conceived of the idea of Negro History Week in 1925, the goal was simply to raise awareness of African American contributions to civilization in order to begin to eliminate prejudice. The event was first celebrated during a week in February 1926 that encompassed the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. According to an article by Howard University Professor Daryl Michael Scott, the response, at the time, was overwhelming: Black history clubs sprang up; teachers demanded materials to instruct their pupils; and progressive Whites—not simply White scholars and philanthropists—stepped forward to endorse the effort.

By the time of Woodson’s death in 1950, Negro History Week had become a central part of African American life and substantial progress had been made in encouraging more Americans to appreciate the celebration. At mid century, mayors of cities nationwide issued proclamations noting Negro History Week.

According to Scott, the Black awakening of the 1960s also dramatically expanded the consciousness of African Americans about the importance of Black history, and the Civil Rights Movement focused Americans of all colors on the subject of the contributions of African Americans to the nation’s history and culture.

The celebration was expanded to a month in 1976, the nation’s bicentennial. President Gerald R. Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

That year, 50 years after the first celebration, the association held the first African American History Month event. By that time, the entire nation had come to recognize the importance of Black history in the drama of the American story. Since then each American president has issued African American History Month proclamations and the association—now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH)—continues to promote the study of Black history all year.

Locally in February, thousands of students, particularly elementary youngsters, descend on public libraries with lists and project assignment sheets in hand seeking help.

This year, Rose Mitchell, curator of the Los Angeles County Library system’s Black Resource Center located at the A.C. Bilbrew branch provided assistance to a laundry list of people including a sorority helping the Palos Verdes Library mount a Black History Month display, as well as countless students, teachers and churches.

But what stood out most this year in Mitchell’s mind was the efforts of a young Latina student from Whittier High School who came to research the immortal songbird Billie Holiday.

“She was going to portray Billie Holiday, and we looked for images. I gave her the DVD ‘Lady Sings the Blues’; gave her books on Billie Holiday and images on how she could portray her in front of class,” said Mitchell.

Something else that Mitchell noticed this year is that there has been a greater variety of Black achievers that students are researching.

“If you leave it up to the kids, they pick the same people. But now I am seeing students with lists of people that [are] very diverse and does not include people that everyone knows,” Mitchell said.