Black History Month
Black History Month was established in 1976 by Afro-Americans for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. The month-long celebration was an expansion of Negro History Week, which was established in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, director of what was then known as the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.
Woodson selected the week in February that embraced the birthdays of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. The celebration may have had its origins in the separate efforts of Mary Church Terrell, a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and the African American collegiate fraternity Omega Psi Phi. The former had begun the practice of honoring Frederick Douglass on February 14, the date he used to mark his birth. The Omegas established a “Negro Achievement Week” in 1924. Woodson was friends with Mary Church Terrell and worked with her and the National Council of Colored Women to preserve Douglass’ home and personal papers. Woodson was also a member of Omega Psi Phi. While Terrell’s celebration of Douglass was a local event and the Omega Achievement Week was part of their community outreach, Woodson broadened the scope of the celebration in three significant ways. First, he conceived of the event as a national celebration, sending out a circular to groups across the United States. Secondly, he sought to appeal to both whites and blacks and to improve race relations. For this reason, he chose President Lincoln’s birthday as well as Douglass’. Finally, Woodson viewed Negro History Week as an extension of ASNLH’s effort to demonstrate to the world that Africans and peoples of African descent had contributed to the advance of history. Each year, ASNLH would select a national theme and provide scholarly and popular materials to focus the nation’s “study” of Negro history. As such, Negro History Week was conceived as a means of undermining the foundation of the idea of black inferiority through popular information grounded in scholarship. The theme, chosen by the founders of Black History Month, for 2007 is “From Slavery to Freedom, Africans in the Americas.”
The Negro History Week Movement took hold immediately. At first it was celebrated almost exclusively by African Americans, taking place outside of the view of the wider society. Increasingly, however, mayors and governors, especially in the North, began endorsing Negro History Week and promoting interracial harmony. By the time of Woodson’s death in 1950, Negro History Week had become a well-established cultural institution. Indeed, it was so established that Woodson had begun to criticize groups for shallow and often inaccurate presentations that did not advance the public’s knowledge of Negro life and history.
With the rise of the Black Power Movement in the 1960s, many in the African American community began to complain about the insufficiency of a week-long celebration. In 1976, the ASNLH, having changed its name to The Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, responded to the popular call, citing the 50th annual celebration and America’s bicentennial. For more on the association visit ASALH.org.
History books had barely begun covering black history when the tradition of Black History Month was started. At that point, most representation of blacks in history books was only in reference to the low social position they held, with the exception of George Washington Carver. Black History Month can also be referred to as African-American History Month, or African Heritage Month. One of the few U.S. history works at that time told from an African American perspective was W.E.B. DuBois’ 1935 work “Black Reconstruction.”
In the United Kingdom (UK), Black History Month is celebrated in the month of October. The official guide to Black History Month in the UK is published by Sugar Media, Ltd., which produces 100,000 copies nationwide.
Part of the aim of Black History Month is to underline the harms of racial prejudice and to cultivate black self-esteem following centuries of socio-economic oppression. It is also an opportunity to further recognize significant contributions to society made by people with African heritage.
Early Immigration and Slavery
The name of Nuflo de Olano (b. 1490?) appears in the records as that of a black slave present when Vasco Núñez de Balboa sighted the Pacific Ocean in 1513. Other black men served with Hernán Cortés when he conquered Mexico and with Francisco Pizarro when he marched into Peru.
Estebanico (c. 1500-38), one of the survivors of Pánfilo de Narváez’s unfortunate expedition to Florida in 1527, was a black man. With three companions, he spent eight years traveling overland to Mexico City, learning several Indian languages in the process. Later, while exploring what is now New Mexico, he lost his life in a dispute with the Zuñi Indians. Juan Valiente (d. 1553), another black man, led Spaniards in a series of battles against the Araucanian Indians of Chile between 1540 and 1546. Although Valiente was a slave, he was rewarded with an estate near Santiago and control of several Indian villages. Between 1502 and 1518, Spain shipped out hundreds of Spanish-born Africans, called Ladinos, to work as laborers, especially in the mines. Opponents of their enslavement cited their weak Christian faith and their penchant for escaping to the mountains or joining the Indians in revolt. Proponents declared that the rapid diminution of the Indian population required a consistent supply of reliable workhands.
Free Spaniards were reluctant to do manual labor or to remain settled (especially after the discovery of gold on the mainland), and only slave labor could assure the economic viability of the colonies.
Beginning of the African Slave Trade
By 1518, the demand for slaves in the Spanish New World was so great that King Charles I of Spain (who, as Holy Roman Emperor, was known as Charles V), sanctioned the direct transport of slaves from Africa to the American colonies. The slave trade was controlled by the Crown, which sold the right to import slaves (asiento) to entrepreneurs.
By the 1530s, the Portuguese were also using African slaves in Brazil. From then until the abolition of the slave trade in 1870, at least 10 million Africans were forcibly brought to the Americas: about 47 percent of them to the Caribbean islands and the Guianas; 38 percent to Brazil; and 6 percent to mainland Spanish America. About 4.5 percent went to North America, roughly the same proportion that went to Europe.
The greatest proportion of these slaves worked on plantations producing sugar, coffee, cotton, tobacco, and rice in the tropical lowlands of northeastern Brazil and in the Caribbean islands. Most of them came from the sub-Saharan states of West and Central Africa, but by the late 18th century the supply zone extended to southern and East Africa as well.
Impact of Slavery
Slavery in the Americas was generally harsh, but it varied from time to time and place to place. The Caribbean and Brazilian sugar plantations required a consistently high supply of labor for centuries. In other areas—the frontiers of southern Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and Colombia—slavery was relatively unimportant to the economy.
To tame the wilderness, build cities, establish plantations, and exploit mineral wealth, the Europeans needed more laborers than they could recruit from among their own metropolitan masses. In the early 16th century, the Spanish tried unsuccessfully to subjugate and enslave the native populations of the West Indies. Slavery was considered the most desirable system of labor organization because it allowed the master almost absolute control over the life and productivity of the laborer. The rapid disintegration of local indigenous societies and the subsequent decimation of the native Indians by warfare and European diseases severely exacerbated the labor situation, increasing the demand for imported workers.
African slaves constituted the highest proportion of laborers on the islands and circum-Caribbean lowlands where the native population had died. The same was true in the northeastern coastlands of Brazil—especially the rich agricultural area called the Reconcavo, where the seminomadic Tupinamba and Tupiniquim Indians resisted effective control by the Portuguese—and in some of the Leeward Islands such as Guadeloupe and Dominica, where the Caribs waged a determined resistance to their expulsion and enslavement. In areas of previously dense populations, such as parts of central Mexico or the highlands of Peru, a sufficient number of the Indian inhabitants survived to satisfy a major part of the labor demands of the new colonists. In such cases African slaves supplemented coerced Indian labor.
The Slave Era
The extensive use of black African labor during the 16th and 17th centuries on profitable Brazilian and Caribbean sugar plantations provided a model for European colonists in North America, where Indians and white indentured servants were insufficient to meet the demands for agricultural labor.
Although Africans served as guides and soldiers in the initial Spanish conquest of Mexico, most blacks brought to North America were used to produce the export crops—tobacco, rice, indigo, and cotton—that became the major source of the wealth extracted by European nations from their colonies. The English settlers of North America only gradually turned to black slavery to solve their labor shortage. Spain brought at least 100,000 Africans to Mexico during the 16th century, but England did not extensively engage in the slave trade until the Royal African Co. was established in 1663. Although a trickle of Africans began arriving in English North America in 1619, their status was initially similar to that of the white indentured servants, who remained the backbone of the agricultural labor force until the end of the century. As white workers improved their status during this period, however, both free and bonded blacks were subjected to new laws punishing slave disobedience, prohibiting racial intermarriage, restricting manumission, and otherwise ensuring that the political rights and economic opportunities granted to whites would not be extended to Africans or their descendants.
Blacks resisted enslavement from the time of capture in Africa but, outnumbered by whites, North American slaves were less likely than Brazilian or Caribbean ones to engage in massive rebellions.
Africans in North America typically underwent “seasoning” in the West Indies and a “breaking” process on the mainland, which was designed to supplant African cultural roots with the attitudes and habits of obedience required for slave labor. Retention of African skills and social patterns was not as common among North American slaves as among their Latin American counterparts, who were more likely to be born in Africa or have extensive contact with African-born slaves. Only in South Carolina, where slaves became a majority of the population, did planters commonly seek slaves from particular regions of Africa who possessed desired skills, such as the knowledge of rice cultivation. More often, white slaveholders attempted to suppress African culture, believing it was easier to control slaves who spoke English and depended on the skills and knowledge instilled in them by whites. These efforts were not completely successful, however. Slaves Africanized English, Christianity, and other aspects of Western civilization, thereby creating their own unique culture that combined African with European elements.
Efforts to return to Africa or to establish Maroon (slave) colonies in North America became less common as the proportion of African-born slaves declined, but resistance continued under the leadership of slaves and free blacks, who used their knowledge of white society to improve the status of blacks. Despite the restrictions white masters placed on the education and religious activity of slaves, literacy and Christianity often became vehicles for individual and collective resistance, both to brutal treatment and to enslavement itself.
World War I marked a turning point in African-American history by hastening the long-term process of black urbanization and institutional development. When black migrants came to urban areas to take industrial jobs vacated by white soldiers, the resulting expansion of the black urban population opened still further the business and professional opportunities for blacks. Even before the war, the emerging black middle class had begun to identify its own interests with those of less affluent blacks, who were their clientele.
These sentiments became more evident as blacks self-consciously reacted to white racism with expressions of racial pride and unity. College-educated blacks—Du Bois called them “the talented tenth”—were still few in numbers (only 2132 blacks were in college in 1917), but they were more and more likely to have received academic rather than vocational training and were thereby better able to provide articulate political and cultural leadership. These educated blacks did not agree on support for the war—the labor leader A. Philip Randolph and the socialist Chandler Owen (1889-1967) vigorously opposed it—but were united in the view that blacks should use the war as an opportunity to make racial gains. The majority of the 370,000 black servicemen were assigned to support units during World War I, but some all-black regiments saw extensive combat duty. The 369th Infantry Regiment was the first Allied regiment to reach the Rhine River; the regiment was awarded the Croix de Guerre by France for distinguished service during the war. Black servicemen came home from the war with a determination to demand the respect of the nation for which they had fought.
The Postwar Years
Even as blacks returned, however, white opposition to black gains became more intense.
In 1917 more than 200 blacks were killed in East Saint Louis, Ill., by a white mob that invaded the black community. During the same year, 63 black soldiers in Houston, Tex., were summarily court-martialed and 13 hanged without benefit of appeal after a black battalion rioted in reaction to white harassment. After the war, many black soldiers in uniform were attacked and some killed by whites seeking to reinforce traditional patterns of racial domination. During the “Red Summer” of 1919, antiblack riots occurred in Longview, Tex.; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Omaha, Nebr. These events further stimulated blacks to defend their rights and support outspoken leaders.
The most popular militant black leader was a Jamaican immigrant, Marcus Garvey, who in 1916 established an international organization with headquarters in New York City. His Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) had a membership ranging from 2 to 4 million people. By 1919 he had also established a steamship corporation, the Black Star Line, to pursue trade with Africa. Garvey’s popularity, however, made him a target of attacks from black civil rights leaders and brought him under surveillance by the U.S. government. In 1922, amid mounting controversy, he was arrested for mail fraud in connection with his steamship line. His subsequent conviction and imprisonment, and his deportation in 1927, resulted in a rapid decline of the UNIA.
The Harlem Renaissance
Garvey’s rise and fall was only one aspect of the growth of racial pride and awareness that characterized the 1920s. As he drew support from black workers and those who owned small businesses, a cultural movement—the Harlem Renaissance—was gaining support from black intellectuals (see also American Literature: Harlem Renaissance). The Jamaican-born poet and novelist Claude McKay was the first black literary figure of the 1920s to attract a large white audience. The innovative novel Cane (1923) by Jean Toomer (1894-1967) voiced the common theme of the Harlem Renaissance in its identification with the lifestyles of the black poor. Although Toomer and the poet Countee Cullen were members of the black elite, they and other black writers combined European literary technique with African-American themes. The most popular and prolific of the black writers of the 1920s was the poet Langston Hughes, whose works showed a strong identification with the black working class. These writers found an audience largely due to the efforts of white patrons and black editors, such as Charles S. Johnson (1893-1956) at Opportunity (published by the Urban League) and Jessie Fauset (1886-1961) and Du Bois at The Crisis (published by the NAACP). Alain Locke (1886-1954), a Harvard graduate and a Rhodes scholar, was one of several black academics who promoted African-American and African culture. His work was later continued by Zora Neale Hurston (1901-60), a novelist who in 1935 published Mules and Men, an outstanding book of southern black folktales.
As in literature, black activities in theater reflected a desire to display their cultural distinctiveness to the public. Several musical comedies produced in the 1920s by Eubie Blake (1883-1983) and Noble Sissle (1881-1975) allowed black performers to prove their talents. The actor Charles Gilpin (1878-1930) played more serious roles, including the title role in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. The actor Paul Robeson also performed in O’Neill’s plays, starred in William Shakespeare’s Othello, and later gained prominence as a singer of black spirituals and working-class folk songs.
African-American music was also deeply affected by the social currents of the 1920s. Previously confined to the South, jazz and blues began to be played in northern cities during World War I and soon became established in the rapidly growing northern black communities. Louis Armstrong went from New Orleans to Chicago in 1922 to play with King Oliver’s jazz band, and Jelly Roll Morton began arranging the previously spontaneous jazz pieces during the mid-1920s, preparing the way for big band leaders such as Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson.
Depression and War
The cultural awakening of the 1920s lost momentum in the ’30s as the worldwide economic depression diverted attention from cultural to economic matters. Unemployment and poverty among blacks was high even before the stock-market crash of 1929, but the general downturn in the economy made it more feasible for blacks to join with whites in seeking social reforms. A small minority of blacks was drawn to the Communist party (see Communist Parties: the U.S.), which made special efforts to attract them and ran a black candidate for vice-president in 1932, 1936, and 1940. The party’s black support remained small, however, and many black members, such as the writer Richard Wright, became disillusioned and left. More important was the involvement of blacks in labor unions, both all-black organizations such as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, led by A. Philip Randolph, and the industrial unions that joined to form the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). Unions played an important role in forming the National Negro Congress, with Randolph as president, to promote black economic interests, but internal political disputes reduced its effectiveness. Nonetheless, black workers became firmly established during the 1930s and ’40s in numerous industries. In part as a result of union involvement, the allegiance of black voters underwent a historic shift from the Republican party, which they had supported since Reconstruction, to the Democratic party. In the 1934 election, two years after Franklin D. Roosevelt won the presidency, for the first time most black voters supported Democratic candidates.
The New Deal
Although blacks overwhelmingly voted for Roosevelt in the 1936 election, his New Deal had mixed results in black communities. On the one hand, federal relief programs provided aid for poor blacks who had previously been forced to survive without government assistance. Blacks were also hired to build, and were enabled to occupy, new housing financed by the government. In addition, partly through the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt, New Deal policies were influenced by a group of black leaders, informally organized as a Black Cabinet by the educator Mary McLeod Bethune. Finally, several blacks were appointed to the Roosevelt administration. Among these were Robert C. Weaver, an adviser in several agencies, and Bethune, who was director of Negro Affairs in the National Youth Administration.
On the other hand, the Roosevelt administration did little to confront the special problems faced by blacks. New Deal programs did not help southern black farmers, who were hurt by the decline in agricultural prices and were not allowed to influence the Agricultural Adjustment Administration programs. Fearful of losing his southern white support, Roosevelt declined to back federal legislation against lynching. Blacks were often victims of discrimination on the part of federal relief programs, especially in the South. By excluding farmers and domestics, the Social Security Act of 1935 excluded 65 percent of all black workers. Similarly, the bulk of black workers were not covered by National Recovery Administration codes (see National Industrial Recovery Act). Many federal housing programs also perpetuated patterns of residential segregation.
Despite setbacks, however, a foundation was established during the depression for subsequent civil rights reforms through the alliance of blacks with white liberals. During the 1930s the NAACP led a vigorous legal battle against discrimination, concentrating on segregation in public education. In 1938, it gained an initial victory when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the admission of a black man to the University of Missouri law school, because the state had failed to provide such facilities for blacks. The NAACP also played an important defense role in the Scottsboro Case, although its involvement came only after the Communist party had publicized the case.
World War II
The war against the Axis powers provided a great stimulus for changes in national racial policies, for it increased the need for black labor and heightened the sensitivity of whites to the dangers of racist ideas. On the eve of the war, a threatened march on Washington by blacks under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph persuaded Roosevelt to issue an executive order prohibiting racial discrimination in the defense industries and in government. Although the Committee on Fair Employment Practice, established under this order, had few enforcement powers, it encouraged a large-scale migration of blacks in search of jobs in defense plants. Between 1940 and 1950 this migration more than tripled the black population in the western states. Conflicts over housing and jobs developed in some cities between black and white workers, and a race riot occurred in Detroit in 1943, resulting in the deaths of 25 blacks and 9 whites before federal troops restored order.
While making gains in civilian life, blacks also sought to improve their status by military service. As in previous wars, blacks seeking to enter the armed forces faced considerable discrimination, although the War Department eventually approved the training of an unprecedented number of black officers and accepted blacks to serve as pilots and in medical and engineering units. Approximately half a million blacks served overseas in segregated units in the Pacific and Europe. Dorie Miller (1919-43) won the Navy Cross, the highest honor awarded to a black serviceman in the war, for his heroism at Pearl Harbor in 1941. As in civilian life, racial conflicts occurred on or near military posts and in occupied zones abroad; serious riots erupted at several camps, where black soldiers protested against poor conditions and racial discrimination. See also World War II.
Brought to you by