Did you know that Black History Month was once Negro History Week?
The first Negro History Week was established on February 7, 1926, by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the second African American to get a Ph.D. in history after Dr. WEB DuBois earned him in 1895. Woodson said that most history books “overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed the accomplishments of Black people. Woodson was both a visionary and an unusual academic, having worked on farms and in mines before beginning high school at age 20. He founded the Association on the Study of African American Life and Culture in 1915. He picked the second week of February for Negro History Week because it included both President Abraham Lincoln’s February 12 birthday and abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ chosen February 14 birthday. (Douglas did not know when his actual birthday was because his birth was recorded in a property ledger indicating only that he was born in February. His birth was recorded in an inventory of horses, cattle, and plowing tools. Because enslaved people were not regarded as human, the date of their birth was of less consequence than their worth.).
During the 1960s, Negro History Week evolved into Black History Month, and President Gerald Ford was the first President to issue a proclamation proclaiming February as Black History Month IN 1976, our nation’s Bicentennial year. Ford’s proclamation urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history .”Since then, every President has issued a Black History Month proclamation. On January 31 of this year, President Biden said, “I am reminded of something Amelia Boynton said when reflecting on her march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on what would be known as Bloody Sunday: “You can never know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.” America is a great Nation because we choose to learn the good, the bad, and the full truth of the history of our country — histories and truths that we must preserve and protect for the next generation. This National Black History Month, as we remember where we have been, may we also recognize that our only way forward is by marching together.”
Do we really march together? Forty-four states have introduced legislation to restrict the ways race matters are taught, concerned that white students might be “indoctrinated” to “hate” our country. Why does the truth hurt so many so much? Enslavement happened, and it has had an impact on contemporary life. Too few are willing to consider ways to address and repair ugly aspects of our history, perhaps through reparation, restitution, and reconciliation. Instead, many want to run and hide from our history.
The Jesuits at St. Louis University are among those who are running and hiding. They commissioned a study to show their relationship to enslavement. They acknowledged that as many as 16 enslaved people were forced to walk from Maryland to St. Louis to cultivate a farm to support a Jesuit mission (ironically to “civilize” Indians). Now, researchers have identified more than 200 survivors from these enslaved people. The University of Connecticut’s Dr. Thomas Cramer calculated the value of stolen labor as between $361 million and $70 billion. The university, so far, has been silent about what it owes and what it plans to do about it. They should take a page from the book of another Jesuit University, DC’s Georgetown. The remedy they have begun to implement has been insufficient, but it is a remedy nonetheless. Attorney Areva Martin, retained by the Descendants of the St. Louis University Enslaved (DSLUE), has worked closely with Robin Prudie, the founder of the nonprofit organization (dsule.org), wonders why the university would go to the trouble of documenting their troubled history without doing anything about it.
Black History Month is an opportunity to celebrate African American triumphs and accomplishments, and it is also an opportunity to address some of the structural inequities inherent in our system. We have a crushing wealth gap that is a function of the ways Black people have been treated throughout history. We would be remiss if, in celebrating, we were silent about this history of enslavement, exploitation, and oppression. St. Louis is not unique in using slave labor as the foundation for its thriving enterprise. There would be no White House, Capitol buildings, or even a Wall Street without the contribution of the enslaved. Celebrate Black History Month, but make it plain. Black History Month celebrations remind us that Black folk are due more than Presidential proclamations. We are due economic justice!