Dr. Carter G. Woodson started Negro History week in 1926. It later became Black History Week and has now become Black History Month. A proclamation is now issued by the President of the United States. And in 2011, some wonder why we still celebrate it. After all, we have our first African American president, our first African American attorney general, the third highest ranking congressional Democrat is an African American and the former chairman of the Republican National Committee is African American. Many argue that we are now living in a post racial society. So why do we still celebrate Black History month in February?
Below are some reflections by Elsie L. Scott, Ph.D. Dr. Scott is president and chief executive officer of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF) in Washington, D.C. The CBCF is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization supported by an $11 million annual budget and a staff of 33 employees, including eight fellows who each serve a year in Congressional offices on Capitol Hill. Dr. Scott recounts her childhood memories of Black History Week:
“I remember celebrating black history week when I was in elementary and secondary school. It was the one week in the school year when we could openly talk about the achievements of black people, when we could talk about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and civil rights. We would decorate the bulletin board with pictures of black achievers and each student would have to prepare a black history booklet. My sisters and I would have the prize-winning black history booklets because our father subscribed to Ebony, Jet and black newspapers from which we could clip an array of beautiful pictures of black leaders, entertainers and sports figures. Children without those resources at home had a difficult time finding enough pictures to complete their booklets. We would prepare our booklets and give our “leftover” pictures to children who did not have black publications at home.”
This year also marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. The Association of for the Study of African American Life and History chose African Americans and the Civil War as a theme for this year’s Black History celebration. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History chooses a theme that guides Black History Month each year. The history of the Civil War and blacks is often entangled with negative emotions for many African Americans. Few know of the service of African Americans in the Civil War. The movie, Glory, which starred Denzel Washington, highlighted the heroic service of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers. It is estimated that about 179,000 black men (10% of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy.
Dr. Elsie Scott recounts her family’s civil war history:
“My father’s grandfather served in the Civil War, entering the war as a cook for a confederate soldier and ending the war as a union soldier. He told my father how he was captured by the union soldiers and imprisoned. The black prisoners were told to repeat this oath, “I promise I will never rebel again against the United States” and they were freed. Hearing that a colored unit of the union army was being formed in New York, they traveled to New York and volunteered to fight in hopes of ending slavery. He became a part of the 20th U.S. Colored Infantry.’
Those serving as free blacks risked being killed or returned to slavery. Dr. Scott’s great grandfather’s name is inscribed on the wall of the African American Civil War Museum located in Washington, DC.
Dr. Scott states that Black History Month is a good time to learn about the role that blacks played in the Civil War. Many African Americans want to forget this painful part of American history. Yet, African Americans played a pivotal role in fighting for the Union and freedom. The descendants of confederate soldiers have actively sought to preserve their history, and many have sought to distort what is taught in the classrooms and what is written in the history books. Americans need to know that African Americans fought for freedom, not just in the Civil War, but also in other wars as well as on the battlefront against Jim Crow in American cities and towns. And African Americans continue to fight for freedom in America today.
Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and legal/political commentator. She writes on race, women, law and politics. She is frequently seen in the media. She also writes for the Huffington Post. She holds a Juris Doctorate from George Washington University Law School and a BA in African American history from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Elsie Scott contributed to this article.