History As A Communal Act: The History of Black History Month, by Stephen G. Hall

Frederick Douglass as US Recorder of Deeds, Library of Congress image, sign at D.C. Court of Appeals

Frederick Douglass as US Recorder of Deeds, Library of Congress image, sign at D.C. Court of Appeals

African Americans have always imagined and constructed history as a communal act. At the inception of the African American historical enterprise in the early 19th century, Jacob Oson’s Search for Truth (1817), one of the first examples of a textual African American historical production, offers insights into these communal sensibilities. Oson delivered the address in New Haven and New York, the locations of two dynamic free black communities, addressing communal concerns such as the African past, contemporary treatment, and identity. He also received help in publishing the address from Christopher Rush, Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, one of the largest black church organizations in the country. From inception to publication, history existed not as the purview of the few, but as a communal product.

Oson’s work was no mere isolated incident. Writers were largely community advocates: ministers, abolitionists, autodidacts, and bibliophiles. James W.C. Pennington’s A Textbook of the Origin and History of the Colored People (1841)  offered important insights into African American history. Maria Stewart’s speeches blended piety with calls for communal action and awareness of racial injustice. Robert Benjamin Lewis’s interracial heritage (Native American and African) served as a springboard for his humanistic and universal history of African-descended people titled Light and Truth (1844). Black writers also envisioned their community as transnational. They engaged the African past as well as the complexities of the African Diaspora. They ruminated on the history of Haiti and Latin America. For these writers, African Americans were more than mere products of North American slavery. Their history was intertwined with the social, political, and cultural fabric of Africa and the Diaspora. In short, African American intellectuals understood their unique role as African-descended people whose history shaped the global experience.

Communal engagement proved central in dramatizing and reflecting the sentiments of historical periods. As African Americans laid the groundwork in the nation’s transition from slavery to freedom, Black history heralded these changes. William Wells Brown’s The Black Man (1863) and The Negro in the American Rebellion (1867) provided the first blueprints for the future. William Still’s The Underground Railroad (1871) reconstructed black heroism in the fight to end slavery. Black remembrance of the past focused less on individual achievements and more on the community’s collective ability to overcome obstacles to achieve clear goals. Freedom’s advent emanated from and served communal purposes.

Sculpture of John Brown by Edmonia Lewis

Sculpture of John Brown by Edmonia Lewis

Black history’s communal manifestations were not merely textual. West Indian Independence Day and Juneteenth and Emancipation Day Celebrations, to name a few, permeated the communal landscape throughout the 19th and into the 20th centuries. Artistic representations, especially the work of Edmonia Lewis and Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, were very important. Both of these women used sculpture to powerfully reconstruct the black past. Lewis’s John Brown (1864–65) and Robert Gould Shaw (1867–68, marble) depict historical figures subsequently revered in black communities. Her communal representation, Forever Free (1867, marble), celebrated the ratification of the 13th Amendment. The original title of the piece was “Morning of Liberty.” Fuller’s Ethiopia Awakening (1914), Mary Turner (Silent Protest Against Mob Violence) (1919) and Ethiopia Awakening (1930) highlight themes of racial pride, cultural awareness, and awakening and resilience in the face of adversity.

The outgrowth of these communal sensibilities naturally impacted the growth of the professionalized African American history project. Carter G. Woodson’s establishment of the Association of the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) in 1915, the Journal of Negro History (1916), and the Associated Publishers in 1916 built on preexisting traditions of communal engagement and representation. These traditions were already extant in the African American historical enterprise for at least a century prior to their professionalization. Woodson used the “Documents” and “Notes” sections of the JNH to present communal offerings, the living and breathing history found in the attics and basements of African Americans around the country. Due to the small number of professionally trained historians, Woodson understood that the African American historical project must embrace the larger community as well as the professional and lay classes. Woodson utilized the broadest cross-section of the black community, drawing on everyone from K-12 educators and administrators to physicians, politicians, and pastors and ordinary people who displayed an interest in the historical past.Black literary and historical societies, bibliophiles, and collectors were also prominent in this regard. Groups such as the American Negro Academy, the Negro Society for Historical Research, and the Mu-So Lit Club played a prominent role in promoting the study of history. Their efforts were complimented by bibliophiles such as Arthur Schomburg and Jesse Moorland. Schomburg, a Puerto-Rican immigrant, collected books about the global black experience in his Harlem apartment. His extensive collection was purchased by the New York Public Library in 1925. Today it comprises the nucleus of the Schomburg Collection in Harlem, New York. Jesse Moorland, an avid bibliophile, YMCA activist, and close friend of Carter G. Woodson, donated his sizable collections to the institution, which today are housed at Howard University’s Moorland-Springarn Room.

Abraham Lincoln's walking stick, Mary Todd Lincoln's gift to Frederick Douglass

Abraham Lincoln’s walking stick, Mary Todd Lincoln’s gift to Frederick Douglass

Given more than a century of deep engagement with history in black communities in textual, commemorative, artistic, organizational (literary and historical societies and libraries and repositories), and professional projects, it is not surprising that Negro History Week (1926) and later Black History Month (1980) emerged. Instituted as a communal celebration of black possibility and reality, Negro History Week continued earlier themes of accentuating black communal achievements, charting communal possibility and using institutional spaces to shape historical understanding within black communities and more important, in the national and global spheres. Its celebration in February acknowledges its communal roots. February is the birth month of two revered figures in African American life and history in the 19th and early 20th centuries: Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Douglass and Lincoln loomed large in the black imagination because of their associations, tangible and symbolic, with Emancipation. The commemorative celebrations of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, as well as the long communal struggle to eradicate slavery from the order of things, resonated in the chords of memory in African-descended populations well into the 20th century.

In 1926, the Annual Meeting of the ASNLH was held at Morgan State College (now university) in Baltimore. A “Negro History Week Roundtable” featured educators primarily from the State of Maryland and the District of Columbia. Given the prominence and activism of the black communities in these two locales, they serve as a representative sample for how “the movement,” as it was commonly labeled, impacted black communities. The comments of the educators, one of whom was Dr. Otelia Cromwell, Head of the Department of History and English in the public schools in the District of Columbia, emphasized the importance of the work. They also highlighted the impact of the celebration on young people in urban and rural communities. According to Cromwell, the observance of Negro History Week not only proved of great interest to students, faculty, and staff in the District of Columbia, but it also “had the effect of improving the tone and atmosphere of the school room.” The summation of Cromwell’s remarks unquestionably demonstrates the immeasurable nature of history’s communal reach. The report read: “These results which cannot be easily set forth in words or mathematically measured she believed to be the most important of all.” Cromwell knew that history’s import and meaning transcended the solidarity of a single moment in time. It permeated the classroom and seeped into the collective strivings of untold generations. It informed one hundred years of historical engagement and interrogation. It gave rise to textual writing, commemorative celebrations, artistic representations, literary and historical societies, black bibliophiles and collectors, and finally the professionalization of African American history in the first half of the twentieth century.

These same communal sensibilities informed the rise of the African American museum movement in the 1960s: The DuSable Museum of African American History (1961), the International Afro-American Museum in Detroit (1965), the Anacostia Community Museum in Washington (1967), and the African American Museum of Philadelphia (1976). Other community-inspired projects include The Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore (1983) and the National Afro American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio (1987). All of these museums used history and historical artifacts to dramatize the black past and present it to the community. These efforts culminated in the creation of the National African American Museum on the National Mall in 2016.

Our contemporary moment has witnessed the continuation of these communal projects. It has spawned the use of digital spaces (Internet and social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Snapchat, Instagram) to present African American history and historical ideas in new and dynamic ways. The construction of syllabi to educate diverse publics about contemporary events is a direct outgrowth of this communal focus. These efforts are too numerous to name them all, but a few examples will suffice: Dr. Marcia Chatelain’s #Ferguson Syllabus and the work of Drs. Chad Williams, Kidada Williams, and Keisha Blain with the #CharlestonSyllabus, The D.A.TT Freedom Summer 2015 Syllabus, the #BlackPantherSyllabus, the #The Baltimore Syllabus, the BlackLivesMatter Syllabus, the Welfare Reform Syllabus, the Trump Syllabus 2.0, and the Trump Syllabus 2.0: Supplementary List.

Black History Month, then, is more than a month-long celebration or an obligatory relic of an outmoded past. Rather it is and continues to serve as the catalyst for the transmission of a dynamic historical memory embedded in the collective striving of a global people to celebrate their historical past, affirm their humanity, and share the richness and vibrancy of their history as a communal act.

This piece was originally published at The African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) blog

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. (Bio credit: AAIHS)

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