African-American History Month: Know your nation’s history

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- Although blacks have been in America at least as far back as the earliest settlers, it was not until the 20th century they gained a presence in history books. Originally called "Negro History Week," "National African-American History Month," the celebration which started in 1926, highlights the contributions of blacks in American culture.

Unknown to many, we owe the celebration and study of black history to Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Dr. Woodson was the son of two former slaves and spent the majority of his childhood working in the Kentucky coal mines. At age twenty, he enrolled in high school, graduating within two years and furthering his education with a doctorate from Harvard University.

During his quest for higher knowledge, the scholar was disturbed by the lack of black presence in history books. This discontentment sparked a passion to rewrite blacks into American history. In 1915, he established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now known as the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. A year later he founded the Journal of Negro History, now known as the Journal of African-American History, which continues to capture the accomplishments of blacks in America.

Despite his efforts at the time, it wasn't until 10 years later the first "Negro History Week" was celebrated as a national initiative to bring attention to the contributions of blacks in America. Choosing the second week in February, Dr. Woodson wanted to commemorate two birthdays of men who greatly influenced the black American population: Fredrick Douglas and President Abraham Lincoln.

The month of February has also been an important month throughout black history. For example, W.E.B. DuBois, who was an important civil rights leader and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was born on the 23rd of the month in 1868. In February 1870, the 15th Amendment was passed granting blacks the right to vote; and the first black senator, Hiram R. Revels, took his oath of office. In February 1909, the NAACP was founded by a group of concerned black and white citizens in New York City. Then on Feb. 1, 1960 one of the most famous milestones in the civil rights movement occurred when a group of black college students from Greensboro, N.C., began to sit at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford issued the first message on the observance of Black History Month to "recognize the important contribution made to our nation's life and culture by black citizens." Then in 1986, Congress designated February as National Black (Afro-American) History Month, noting that Feb. 1, 1986, marked "the beginning of the sixtieth annual public and private salute to Black History." Finally, in 1996, President Bill Clinton proclaimed February as National African-American History Month. Since that year, presidents have issued annual proclamations for the celebration.

Today, some would argue celebrating observances independently simply perpetuates the cycle of segregation and keeps America locked in the past. National African-American History Month, and the other observances celebrated throughout the year, are necessary because historically the contributions of minority groups have been limited or sometimes totally eliminated from the American textbooks.

Growing up, history was one of my favorite subjects in school because I enjoyed learning how visionaries were able to manifest their dreams into reality. Unfortunately, I was only privy to the contributions of one group for quite some time. As I grew, I began to learn that my textbook omitted noteworthy facts, and I too related to Dr. Woodson's frustration. I felt, if I am to truly be a student of "American History" then all aspects should be covered because each step made my country what it is today.

True historical reflection is not a bad thing if perceived with the right pair of lenses. It allows us to learn, grow, and change the future for those who are yet to come. If I, as a student, or anyone in my great country am not given the opportunity to see the truth, how can I fully understand what it means to be American?

During the month of February I encourage you to take some time to learn about black history because, like all other special observances, it highlights the beginning of our future.