Many accept Black History Month as a special time of year, yet few recognize the role African American teachers played in establishing and popularizing this tradition during Jim Crow. Originally founded in 1926 as Negro History Week by the famed educator and groundbreaking historian Carter G. Woodson, Black History Month is the product of Black teachers’ long-standing intellectual and political struggles.
As a longtime public school teacher, Woodson witnessed white school leaders resist efforts to meaningfully transform curriculum and school policies, and while earning his doctorate from Harvard University, between 1908 and 1912, he learned how distortions about Black life were constructed at the highest levels of education. Recognizing these barriers, he decided to work from outside the classroom to partner with teachers. This began with Woodson founding the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915.
Woodson was particularly interested in using Negro History Week to infuse students’ learning with critical knowledge about racial domination as well as the long traditions of Black resistance and achievement. Negro History Week quickly became a cultural norm in Black segregated schools. According to surveys conducted by Black educator and journalist Thomas L. Dabney in 1934, it was celebrated in more than 80 percent of those high schools by the mid-1930s.
The creation of Negro History Week did not occur in a vacuum. It reflected a continuum of consciousness among Black educators, channeling an intellectual and political tradition long practiced in the private spaces of their classrooms. This class of teachers placed the needs of their students above protocols imposed by white school leaders.
This tradition stretched back as early as 1864, when Black abolitionist Charlotte Forten taught recently freed children in South Carolina about Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution. Noticing the absence of such narratives in textbooks and materials supplied by white missionaries, Forten wrote that Black children “should know what one of their own color had done for his race.”
A decade before establishing Negro History Week, Woodson and his colleagues at the M Street School in Washington planned professional-development events for Black teachers, and they did so independent of the school district. These workshops during the 1915-16 academic year extended from previous strategies they employed to work around the official school curriculum.
Woodson facilitated a history and civics workshop, which took place just after he published the inaugural issue of the Journal of Negro History—the first academic publication of its kind and one that Woodson founded and edited using the small salary he earned from teaching history, English, and French at the M Street School. W.E.B. Du Bois—who had visited the school in previous years at the invitation of Anna Julia Cooper, the school’s principal at the time and the author of A Voice from the South: By A Black Woman from the South—led workshops on Black history for teachers.
These educators insisted on the importance of providing students with cultural armor to repudiate the racial myths reflected in the nation’s laws, social policies, and American curriculum.
Such examples reflect a robust intellectual culture among Black schoolteachers. What’s more, these educators insisted on the importance of providing students with cultural armor to repudiate the racial myths reflected in the nation’s laws, social policies, and American curriculum.
But teaching about Black life and culture was not just about songs, poems, and a few good stories of successful Black people. Woodson emphasized the direct relationship between curricular content and the violent lived experiences of Black people in the world. When reflecting on Negro History Week in 1926, he wrote the following in the Journal of Negro History: “A Negro is passed on the street and is shoved off in the mud; he complains or strikes back and is lynched as a desperado who attacked a gentleman. And what if he is handicapped, segregated, or lynched? According to our education and practice, if you kill one of the group, the world goes on just as well or better; for the Negro is nothing, has never been anything, and never will be anything but a menace to civilization.”
Woodson argued that the official school curriculum cultivated anti-Blackness as a social competence, and its system of representation reflected and reproduced social hierarchies that plagued human society. Based on the American curriculum, Blackness and Black people represented the antithesis of human civilization and achievement. Thus, Negro History Week emerged from Black teachers’ political clarity about the ideological foundations of American schooling and their desire to disrupt such foundations.
The occasion arrived annually in February, yet teachers should not wait until February to study Black life and culture. Woodson emphasized this point again and again. “Some teachers and their students have misunderstood the celebration of Negro History Week,” Woodson explained in the February 1938 Negro History Bulletin. He observed how some schools “work up enthusiasm during these few days, stage a popular play, present an orator of the day, or render exercises of a literary order; but they forget the Negro thereafter throughout the year. To proceed in such fashion may do as much harm as good.”
At its best, Negro History Week dramatized and expressed an educational vision that shaped learning year-round. This caution offered in 1938 might also be applied to our 21st-century present.
As we reflect on the importance of Black History Month in 2021—a time of unprecedented challenges—we might draw inspiration from the robust intellectual and political tradition of Black teachers from the past. The greatest among them were more than ordinary practitioners. They were scholars of the practice. We have Black History Month because of their long tradition of study and struggle.
A version of this article appeared in the February 03, 2021 edition of Education Week as The History of Black History Month