History of Black History Month

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History of Black History Month

We owe the existence of Black History Month to author and historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson. In 1915, Woodson attended a special celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of emancipation. During the three-week event, over ten thousand African Americans traveled to Washington, D.C. to view exhibits on Black history. This inspired Woodson to found the Association for the Study of African American Life & History (ASALH). In February 1926, Woodson and the ASALH announced the first Negro History Week. 

Woodson did not choose the month of February on a whim. Two significant figures in Black history have birthdays in February. Former President Abraham Lincoln's birthday is on the 12th, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass's is on the 14th. The Black community already had a longstanding tradition of celebrating both dates. By choosing February for Negro History Week, Woodson used these existing traditions to spark public interest in Black history as a whole.

Negro History Week received an overwhelming response from the public. Schools and communities around the country organized local celebrations, performances, and lectures on Black history. In 1928, ASALH began setting a theme for the annual celebration and created study materials for the public. Teachers, activists, and intellectuals were instrumental in keeping the spirit of Negro History Week alive in the following decades, and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement only increased interest in the event.

In 1975, President Gerald Ford became the first U.S. President to recognize Black History Week. The following year in 1976, fifty years after the first Negro History Week, Ford issued the first "Message on the Observance of Black History Month." Since then, every American president regardless of party affiliation has issued a proclamation honoring Black History Month.

Local Spotlight: Dr. John Aden 

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Dr. John Aden is the executive director of the African/African-American Historical Museum in Fort Wayne and is a full-time staff member at Canterbury School. A Fort Wayne native, Aden graduated from Paul Harding High School in 1988 and went on to attend Wabash College. As an undergraduate student, Aden spent a summer at the University of Chicago studying ancient Egyptian mummies and the question of skin pigmentation and ideas about race. This experience inspired him to pursue and earn a doctorate in African Studies at the University of Indiana. Aden is also a former Fulbright Fellow to the Republic of Mali, where he conducted research among blacksmith communities.

When did you first become interested in Black History?

My father is a Baptist minister, he’s retired, and he had a massive study where he taught himself Hebrew and Greek. When I was a child, he had books about Black history on the floor of his office or in his bookshelves. I would just walk in after school and pull one off the shelf and start reading it, and that is really how I became interested. Our family celebrated Black History Month every year. It was something my parents took particularly seriously; they felt like it was important for us to have a knowledge of that past. 

Is there something that still stands out to you from that formative time?

The Ebony magazine put out a two-volume set on African American history—it was called Negro history at that time. That was the one that I read. It had hand-drawn images of important figures in Black history. I read that thing twenty times if I read it once. That was kind of my guilty pleasure when I was eight.

Why is Black History Month important to you?

It sounds like a cliché, but Black history is American history. To really understand the American story in its fullest and richness, the story of people of African descent and of Black America is a critical part of that narrative. There are things that probably wouldn’t have happened in this society if it hadn’t been for the agency of many African Americans, including women’s suffrage and equal housing. Jazz and gospel music have been exported around the world and are a part of world culture. The streetlight is a great example of an invention that is literally found all over the planet. It’s not just that African Americans have impacted American society, but they’ve impacted the world. 

The other piece that’s important is realizing that African Americans’ impact on the United States as a culture is not done. It helps to understand the lineage and the origin of those people who arrived here with very little and have managed to carve out lives of significance for themselves and for others.

As a historian, what would you like to see in the future of African/ African-American history?

I hope to see the continued deepening and enrichment of long-standing relationships between African Americans and Africa. African Americans have long looked to Africa as a source of inspiration and as a way to understand African American culture by looking at African cultures. 

I hope that people take a little bit more of a social science approach to some of these questions (affecting Africans and African Americans), and just try do some research. It’s gotten harder for all of us because I think that the internet is so decentralized, and it gets harder to know what’s true and what’s not. I think history in general as a discipline is valuable for that because it can help to foster and inform an informed citizenry.

Why should everyone celebrate Black History Month?

Black history is powerful because it works to rebalance this narrative that only one group of people made serious contributions to American life. All groups of people in American life have made contributions to varying degrees, and I think that it’s important to round out our personal understanding of what those are. 

For me, it gives me a sense of hope, but it also highlights the struggles that African Americans have faced in this culture. I think that if we want to address problems like George Floyd’s death or Breonna Taylor’s death—in order to better understand why those events are unfolding—go get historical context. And it’s African American history that provides you that context.

What is your favorite thing that you’ve learned about Fort Wayne’s Black History?

Fort Wayne did not develop a hyper segregated urban core like most of the cities in the state did. In Fort Wayne there were no segregated schools. Central High School emerged in 1921 and it was an integrated school because the “city fathers” had never thought to segregate the urban center. Everyone who came here lived downtown in the first third of the 20th century. Central comes along and it begins to excel in some powerful ways. Central High School sports teams won state championships, they were a powerhouse, and they were largely a powerhouse because they were integrated. We have photos in the African American Historical Museum of some of the integrated Central High School teams. 

Over time, those teams became overwhelmingly African American, and that came to dismay the city fathers. In 1971, after a long campaign to dismantle Central, they brought Central to a close. They made the argument that Central’s buildings were dilapidated, that they needed to be torn down. Then they closed the school and never tore the building down, because it wasn’t about the school, it was about the fact that African Americans and white Americans were integrated with one another and having similar experiences. On the sports teams and even on some of the competition clubs the school had, African Americans were excelling on a regular basis and going to state and even national competitions, and there were some people who resented that and the history of the city. They were powerful enough to cause Central to close, and that led to the more segregated Fort Wayne Community School system that we have today.

You can find out more about the history of Central High School and other notable events in Fort Wayne’s Black history at the African/African-American Historical Museum. The museum is currently closed to the public due to COVID-19. However, they do offer a museum on wheels and ZOOM tours by appointment. 

To schedule an event, email drjohnadenphd@gmail.com

Ideas on how to celebrate Black History Month

  1. Explore public art by Black artists in downtown Fort Wayne
  2. Read an issue of Fort Wayne Inkspot, the city’s only black-owned newspaper
  3. Attend a Fort Wayne Museum of Art event (virtually) and learn about African American artists in their permanent collections | Wednesday, February 17, 2pm EST
  4. Discover local history by attending a (virtual) talk about African American Founders of Fort WayneThursday, February 25, 6:30pm EST
  5. Experience a virtual Black History Month Festival sponsored by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History—it’s free, and there are events all month long!
  6. Take a virtual museum field trip with Google Arts & Cultureand explore one of 82 collections featuring Black history and culture
  7. Help our community thrive by supporting a local Black owned business! You can find one from one of the following lists:
    1. Visit Fort Wayne | Black-Owned Retail
    2. Visit Fort Wayne | Black-Owned Restaurants
    3. Facebook group | SHOP Fort Wayne Black Owned Businesses

Educational Resources

Local Organizations

National Organizations

Many of these museums have virtual exhibits or events going on this month!

Sources:

Association for the Study of African American life and History (ASALH) “Origins of Black History Month.” 2011. https://asalh.org/about-us/origins-of-black-history-month/

History.com “Black History Month.” January 28, 2021. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-history-month

Library of Congress (LOC) “African American History Month.” December 30, 2020. https://www.loc.gov/law/help/commemorative-observations/african-american.php