President’s Corner February 2021

Black History Is American History 

We are halfway through Black History Month, a month of celebration, remembrance, recognition, and education. We celebrate the resilience of the Black and African American community and a journey toward freedom. We remember the atrocities, trials, and tribulations faced by those enslaved and the many injustices still experienced. We acknowledge Black excellence and the many contributions intricately woven into the nation’s fabric. We pause to learn but, more importantly, educate on Black and African Americans’ comprehensive history, because 95 years after the creation of Negro History Week, too many Americans still lack understanding of the Black experience and its impact on our lives.   

Negro History Week, which has transitioned into Black History Month, began in February 1926, but its origin story goes back to September 1915. Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson traveled from Washington, D.C. to Chicago to attend the 50th anniversary of emancipation. The celebration included Black history displays (including Woodson’s) that nearly twelve thousand people showed up to view for several weeks.  

Inspired by the celebration on September 9, 1915, Woodson met with Minister Jesse E. Moorland, A. L. Jackson, and several others to create the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). The group set out to share the disregarded contributions, innovations, and sacrifices of Black people not offered in school, conversation, media, or anywhere mainstream.  

By 1925 Woodson was sure the organization’s mission must be to create and popularize knowledge about the Black past. He sent out a press release announcing Negro History Week in February 1926. 

Woodson and his team were strategic in choosing February. The month of February had heroes that Americans from both the Black and white communities already celebrated: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Sharing a birthday month, the community actively celebrated Lincoln and Douglass for their contributions to the Black freedom movement. Woodson cleverly realized he would increase his chances of implementing Negro History Week not by asking for something new, but by bolstering something widely accepted with a simple extension of commemorating the Black past.   

From 1926 to the early ’70s, the week inspired schools and communities nationwide to organize local celebrations, establish history clubs, and host performances and lectures. Mayors started giving proclamations, and in the ’60s, the week evolved into a month of celebrations on college campuses across the country. In 1976, President Gerald Ford made the month-long celebration official. He encouraged the public at large to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” 

So here we are. Will the conversation go silent for the next 11 months? 

We must consider the magnitude of this month and all that went in to create it; years of work to claim our existence and tell our story. It is an important month, and its creation was a gargantuan effort, but we can’t sit on those successes because INEQUITY is rampant. The writers of “HIS”-tory are still leaving out the most critical aspects of American history: Black history. Blacks and African Americans put this country on our backs, and our contributions to the world started in the era BC (Before Christ). It’s time that truth be told in totality.   

I am excited about these efforts right here in my city, Denver, where four young women are advocating and rallying to implement Black and African American history in their high school. The work they are doing is remarkable and necessary. They have found authors (www.blackhistory365education.com), curriculum, and support despite threats and other challenges. There is a lot to be learned from these young ladies; we need to be unapologetic about ensuring that every person, especially Black and African Americans, has access to the culture and accepts it. No matter how people try to spin it—Black history is American history.   

Black History Month is an incredible opportunity to celebrate, but it is also a call to action. We have a responsibility to educate, learn, and not lose sight that a week evolved into a month, and now a month must grow into the daily lived experiences of us all. Ensuring educators have the training to comprehend, the facts to share, and the resources to provide the complete history is of paramount importance.      

Black history is so much more than the few isolated events we fed in traditional educational settings. The current historical accounts tell a story of a few inconveniences, holds no accountability, and intentionally robs Blacks and African Americans of a legacy of innovation, contribution, regal ancestry, sacrifice, and appreciation.  

It’s a grossly naked, disrespectful, and under-explored timeline. For most educational institutions, Black history looks like this: 

We owe the legacy and contributions of Black and African Americans more. We owe every American the truth. We can’t actualize the future so many dream of if we selectively refuse to recognize our past aspects. The story begins long before 1619. We have to explore a history that ranges from great kings and queens of the past to the present’s extraordinary contributors. We miss out on so much… Great kings and queens like Hatshepsut and Mansa Musa; explorers like Abu Bakr II; the inventors Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, Lewis Howard Latimer, Marie Van Brittan Brown, Garret Morgan, and Philip Emeagwali. There are politicians, thinkers, and writers like Blanche K. Bruce, Richard Allen, Amiri Baraka, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neale Hurston. Civil rights leaders expand past Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman. So many freedom fighters have fought to make America great for the first time. Individuals like Chairman Fred Hampton, Lauren Watson, Ida B. Wells, Claudette Colvin, Ella Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer.

There are organizations such as the Black Panther Party which are glazed over and villainized when discussed. How could you compare an organization that fed communities, provided free health care, and stood up for the communities they served with an organization as psychotic as the Ku Klux Klan, who murdered thousands of innocent people.

In a few hundred words, we can see what we are missing out on, which is barely the tip of the iceberg. How much better could we be if we didn’t settle for the history selected by the oppressor? In the wake of the U.S. Senate voting to acquit former President Donald Trump, it is a timely question. America is literally once again committing a crime of comfort for the privileged and creating a false narrative to continue oppression and systemic racism. America is devaluing people through a narrative of untruths that divide our country and cause physical, mental, and emotional harm to all that don’t subscribe to a white supremacist narrative.

America has to face its sins, tell the entire truth, and stand up for everyone’s culture and identity.

A great way to start is to understand that Black history isn’t merely a melody of deficit, tragedy, and the constant struggle for justice. Black people are more than enslavement, and white people have to stop denying the benefit of privilege and being too fragile for reflection. Black history begins with ancient civilizations, majestic cities, royalty, riches, and innovations that impact every culture. This Black History Month, let us not merely observe a ceremonial 28 days.

Let’s genuinely celebrate, remember, recognize, educate, and infuse this lost American history into the fabric of our lives.

Dr. Ryan Ross

ryan ross signature

President and CEO
Urban Leadership Foundation

Dr. Ryan Ross

Dr. Ryan E. Ross is the Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Equity, and Inclusion for the Colorado Community College System and President & CEO of the Urban Leadership Foundation of Colorado.