Humanistic Visions: The Long History of Black History Month
The establishment of Negro History Week in 1926 was a natural outgrowth of more than one hundred years of historical engagement by African Americans. From Jacob Oson’s A Search for Truth or an Inquiry for the Origin of the African Nation (1817) to Carter G. Woodson’s establishment of Negro History in 1926 and beyond, black history mattered. Black intellectuals used African American history to accentuate the centrality of African-descended people in shaping the history of the Americas and the world. Beginning at the dawn of the nineteenth century, black abolitionists, ministers, autodidacts and bibliophiles laid the groundwork of the black historical enterprise. Doing so was a Herculean task. Black historians encountered a hostile environment. They faced marginalization in the public sphere and produced their work against the backdrop of chattel slavery undergirded by theological and pseudoscientific justifications of black inferiority. Despite these obstacles, intellectuals looked inward to dynamic communities committed to education, civic participation and humanistic inquiry. They looked outward to communities of color in Africa and the African Diaspora. In doing so, they affirmed their humanity as “citizens of the world.”
Black intellectuals utilized intellectual tools extant in the nascent black communities of the North and South and in nineteenth century culture. In free black communities they looked to textual writing, commemorative celebrations and artistic representations. Moreover, they utilized the tools of intellectual authority in the nineteenth century: the Bible, classicism (a veneration of classical antiquity), Universal History (the term for world history in the period), and Romanticism. Black writers, men and women, such as David Walker, Hosea Easton, Ann Plato, and Maria Stewart, to name a few, wrote treatises on the past which framed black people as more than the products of slave ships, but as actors and creators in the human drama. David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World(1829) offered a trenchant critique of American slavery grounded in discussions of slavery’s global history. Hosea Easton’s Treatise on the Intellectual character and the Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the United States (1837) used the Bible and classicism to make a profound case for the humanity of African-descended people from the origins of humankind. Ann Plato’s Essays (1841) explored a wide range of social, political and cultural issues in black life. Maria Stewart’s “Address Delivered at the African Masonic Hall” (1833) trumpeted the centrality of black people and women in the global experience.
Black intellectuals also actively framed history to intervene in domestic and hemispheric realities. As the nation lurched toward the Civil War in the 1850’s, black historians used both the American and Haitian Revolutions to understand the conflict. William Nell’s The Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812 (1852) and Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855) invoked the service of African Americans in the nation’s wars to accentuate their centrality to the creation of the Republic. James McCune Smith’s Lectures on the Haytien Revolution and James Vashon’s poem “Vincent Oge” (1854) used the Haitian Revolution in a similar fashion. Debunking the stereotype of Haiti as a site of black anarchy, black writers located the Haitian Revolution directly in the stream of the Age of Revolution. In their minds, it was a revolutionary age which included the American and French Revolutions. They argued that Haiti’s revolution embodied the spirit of liberty and freedom culminating in the first Black republic in the Western hemisphere in 1804.
As the horrors of the Civil War receded, black writers hearkened back to the near past as they laid the groundwork for the future. Historians humanized African Americans and connected the past and present. William Still’s The Underground Railroad (1872) skillfully addressed these issues. The principal operator of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee in the 1850’s, Still took extraordinary measures to preserve the history of black resistance to slavery. He often hid the records of the committee in the nearby Lebanon Cemetery. After publishing the records and establishing a nationwide network of agents to sell the book, he boldly proclaimed the connection between the struggles of the past and progressive movement of the present:
The generations are growing in light. Not to know of those who were stronger than shackles, who were pioneers in the grand advance toward freedom; not to know of what characters the race could produce when straightened by circumstances, nor of the small beginnings which ended in triumphant emancipation, will, in a short time, be a reproach.
The strength, resiliency and humanity of the black historical experience was not only on display in textual production. Commemorative celebrations exhibited it as well. The Abolition of the Slave Trade (1807), West Indian Emancipation (1833) and the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) were widely celebrated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Celebrations of freedom provided hope for the future. Black artists and sculptors such as Meta Warrick Fuller and Edmonia Lewis used art to dramatize the black past. More importantly, they used their artistic production to educate broader publics about the diversity and richness of the black past. Black bibliophiles and collectors gathered up the black past and formed intellectual and historical societies such as the American Negro Academy, Mu So Lit Club, and the Negro Society for Historical Research. History was never conceptualized as a static and fixed creation of the past but a dynamic, fluid, living and breathing reality.
Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) also played important roles in shaping historical understandings in the nascent black academy. Not surprisingly, institutions such as Howard and Atlanta University led the charge. However, Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute played a leading role in institutionalizing the black past. Tuskegee offered a wide range of courses on the “Negro in America.” Increasingly, courses at the school from 1910–1915 contained more content on the black past encompassing Africa and the African Diaspora. A historian in his own right, Washington authored and coauthored books on the black experience: The Story of the Negro (1909) and A New Negro for a New Century with clubwoman Fannie Barrier Williams and N.B Wood (1900). He hired Monroe Work, a University of Chicago trained sociologist to head the Office of Records and Research. Work produced the Negro Yearbook, which became the preeminent statistical source on black life in the period. Washington’s vision of the black past and historical understanding extended far beyond the confines of Tuskegee embracing the nation and the world.
By 1915, more than 100 years of African American historical engagement culminated in the formation of the first professional African American historical Association, the Association for the Study of a Negro Life and History (ASNLH). Founded by Carter G. Woodson, the second black to graduate with a Ph.D. in History from Harvard University in 1912, the ASNLH marked continuity and change in the black historical project. Woodson also established a scholarly journal, The Journal of Negro History (JNH) and a publishing arm, Associated Publishers. ASNLH’s meetings featured a large number of social administrators, black professionals, racial and civic leaders and ordinary people. These meetings encapsulated the synergies of the past and the momentum of the present.
The establishment of Negro History Week in 1926 embodied this transformative moment. It drew on the humanistic visions of the nineteenth century historical enterprise, the professionalization of black history in twentieth century, the advent of the New Negro, and the Great Migration, which facilitated the transformation of black communities all over the country. Celebrated in February, to commemorate the lives of two distinguished contributors to African American History: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, it was another active indicator that “the Negro would not become a negligible factor in the history of the world.” Woodson built on this project by establishing the Negro History Bulletin (1936), a quarterly production specifically aimed at popular audiences.
The NHB continued a long tradition of reaching out to broader publics. Inaugurated in the same year that Mary McLeod Bethune assumed the presidency of the ASNLH. Bethune epitomized the relationship between education and historical and humanistic engagement. She started a school for African American girls in Daytona Beach, Florida, which became Bethune-Cookman College. Served as President of the National Association of Colored Women (1924–1928) and founder of the National Council of Negro Women (1935). She also served as the Director of the National Youth Administration’s Division of Negro Affairs during the Great Depression (1938–1943), among other positions. She was a prominent member of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Negro Cabinet.”
During her tenure as President of ASNLH (1936–1951), Bethune stressed the utility of African American history. She believed it could serve as an instructional guide for young people and a tool for peace and broader civic understanding both domestically and internationally. An unselfish contributor and tireless fundraiser, Bethune stressed appreciation of the black past as a guide to the present and future. Her vision informed the leadership of ASNLH at a critical juncture in its development. Coupled with the work of subsequent organizational leaders, Negro History Week evolved into Black History Month by the 1970s. ASNLH, now Association for the Study of African American Life and History celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2015. We are witnessing 200 years of textual writing in African American history.
Today the evolution of African American history’s humanistic visions are in evidence everywhere we look. Public presentations of black history spawned a museum movement. This movement built on the artistic representations of the nineteenth century culminating in the creation of museums from the DuSable Museum of African American History to today’s National African American Museum on the National Mall in Washington D.C. Here we find representations of the black past which locate persons of African descent in the long human drama. Black historians are making use of the Internet to present informative material to discuss contemporary events from the #CharlestonSyllabus to Trump Syllabus 2.0. They are using Social Media: Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr, Snapchat, and Pinterest to create textual, artistic and commemorative sites for examinations of the breadth and depth of the black experience. Indeed, African American history remains what is has always been—a complex, nuanced and incredibly diverse canvas on which to sketch humanistic visions of the past, present and future.
Stephen G. Hall is the Program Coordinator of History at Alcorn State University. He is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America (UNC Press, 2009). He is currently completing an edited book entitled History as A Communal Act: African American Historians and Historical Writing Past and Present (Routledge Press, forthcoming). His second book project is entitled Global Visions: African American Historians Engage the World, 1885–1960. Follow him on Twitter @Posted by