The Origin Story of Black History Month
Kai Wright: This is The United States of Anxiety - A show about the unfinished business of our history, and its grip on our future.
Johnetta Elzie: To see America through the eyes of Black people is to see what America truly is, good and bad.
Anthony McPherson: If we must be Americans, let us be consistent. You cannot thank Rosa Parks for sitting down, then tell Kaepernick to stand up.
Morgan Freeman: You're going to relegate my history to a month, what do you do with yours? Which month is white history month? All right, come on.
Teen Poets: We fight for freedom and justice every day. Simply by being ourselves. We are the ones living Black history.
Kamau Ware: The powers that be in the past several centuries did not want you to think about those stories.
Cicely Tyson: Knowing your roots and where you come from is also key. Keep that with you always.
Kai Wright: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright and February is upon us, which means that it's time for Black History Month. Which honestly, has always been kind of a weird thing for me for reasons I've never really been able to fully articulate. I mean, I love learning the history of my community, to be clear. I have always truly loved it. I can remember being as young as like 6th grade, pulling these big tomes down from my dad's library and just trying to copy him, honestly, by spending my weekends reading about stuff like the legal strategy of the Civil Rights Movement, at 6th grade.
Yet come February, I would roll my eyes, and I couldn't even tell you why. Of course, now I host a show about history, and I get to call up all kinds of smart people to help me learn things. Over the next few shows, I'm going to try to understand why I've never really embraced Black History Month and if there's a future version of it that I can embrace. To start this journey, I am joined by our senior producer Veralyn Williams. Hey Veralyn.
Veralyn Williams: Hi Kai.
Kai: Having outed myself as the Grinch of Black History Month, I turn to you because you are just the opposite, right? You fully and without reservation embrace this annual ritual.
Veralyn: Yes, I love it, I actually celebrate it, all that good stuff.
Kai: Why, what is it about this month that brings you so much joy?
Veralyn: To quote one Nina Simone, "I have no choice." To me, we are the most beautiful creatures in the world. I get excited knowing that from history, we always have been. February is really just a national excuse to be intentional about following the lead of Black women, like Nina Simone, who unapologetically sent her Blackness into art and activism. Women like Oprah who had me glued to my TV, do you remember this, in 2006, watching her honor the contributions of Black people, of Black legends at a ball.
Kai: We must name one of those legends, Cicely Tyson, who just passed at the age of 96. She is exactly the kind of person who comes up around Black History Month, to your point in part because she played these roles. She was in Roots and she was in the autobiography of Jane Pittman, these movies that told the story of our community's history. Here's something she said about her career in an interview with Gayle King that aired on CBS this morning, just a few days before she died.
Gayle: A reporter said to you--
Cicely: That he felt a bit of bigotry in himself while he was watching the movie. When I asked him why so, he said, "I was uncomfortable about your older son referring to his father as daddy." I said, "Do you have children? What do they call you?" He said, "They call me daddy." I thought, "My god, this man is thinking that we're not human-beings." I made up my mind that I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress, and that I would use my career as my platform.
Veralyn: What a legend. [chuckles] What really makes me emotional about Ms Tyson is that she dedicated her whole life to being a representation for what is possible for all of us. I'm so grateful as we watch the tributes come in and all the tributes of years past that we were able to honor her and give her, her flowers while she was here.
Kai: Right, in real time.
Veralyn: In real time.
Kai: You said you actually celebrate Black History Month as a kind of holiday, and by celebrate, I should point out that you actually throw a party every year.
Veralyn: [giggles] Yes, a party with Black people, and other folks too. Since, for a lot of reasons, this year I won't be able to because we're still in the pandemic, I got some friends who have been to my parties of past to recreate it a little. We talk about Black History Month, what it means to us, what it means to them specifically. I thought to do that to help you out, Kai.
Kai: [chuckles] Okay, well I appreciate it. Let's drop in on Veralyn's Black History Month party. Take a listen.
Friend 1: What up.
Veralyn: I have gathered us all today here because normally around this time, I'd be like, "When am I going to have this Black History party?" I'm like texting Tracy like, "When are you free?" Just trying to get some kind of quorum to have a date for this party. This time I did that to have you all here, so hi. Also some of you I haven't seen. James, I don't even know when the last time I saw you.
James Green: Man, I have no idea.
Eric Eddings: I was going to say, most of y'all I don't think I've seen since--
Tracie Hunte: I don't think I've seen all of you since Veralyn's Black History party last year.
Veralyn: Oh my god.
James: It's been awhile, it's been awhile.
Veralyn: Wow, wow. I was super curious when I was thinking about this. If not for my parties, would you be celebrating Black History Month?
Eric: Yes, mostly as a result of having a kid. One of the best things about Black History Month with her is that she has Black History Month programs. She went to an Afrocentric school, and the Black History Month program at her school was always so popping. Just going to that was a lot of community, because everyone is there, we all go eat after. It's just like a really, really, really good experience.
Tracie: That's so interesting, because I really do think it's almost like a kid holiday in that way, because not since I was in school and I had to do a Black History Month report, I had to memorize a Maya Angelou poem or something like that, I wasn't really out here doing a Black History-- no, I was just enduring Black History Month, if anything, and being pissed off that it's only 28 days, 29 every leap year.
Saidu Tejan-Thomas: Yes, I feel similar. I've never really done anything to celebrate it even besides like, buying some Black History Month pair of Kyrie Irving basketball shoes [laughter] which I have right behind me. The only time I really feel engaged in Black History Month is when I feel like it maybe threatened somehow with somebody's talking [beeped out] about Black History Month, or like somebody's trying to take it away, then I'm like, "Wait, wait, hold on, what do you mean?" I feel like that's when I'm like, "No, this is something sacred."
Veralyn: You're defending it because it is about our ability to exist in white spaces.
Friend 4: Yes.
Veralyn: I think that I liked about the parties is that it wasn't about white people at all. [laughs] [laughter] like not even a little bit. [laughs]
Saidu: Even when we played games at your parties about Black history, and identifying different people in Black history, it's like, some people I'd never heard of. That was dope, to be introduced to Black people who did amazing things that I just had never been introduced to because I think part of my not having a really strong relationship to Black History Month is because I was like, "Oh, we're going to learn about the same [beeped out] we learned about last year."
Eric: The one defense I will say of learning about the same folks over and over again, The McDonald's 365 Black campaign, [advertisement jingle] they used to have some prime content. Like radio commercials they would have. It would be same-- it was always like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks. It was always designed really nice. it would come on and be a little music jingle--
Veralyn: Then, "Brought you by McDonald's." [giggles]
Eric: You know what, hey, we all have complicated relationships to capitalism, but [laughter] I appreciated the effort, and I always liked hearing those. I was like, "Oh, right, it's Black History Month." I'd be in this. Everybody's got to do it, everybody's got to show up a little bit.
James:It's like the same vibe as back-to-school. Because I think my relationship with the month is like, I look at it almost as a form of almost reassessing my Blackness. It's like a calendar year reminder. Just like Christmas is like, you think about giving and Thanksgiving, you think about thanks. February, I reassess my Blackness. It's almost like a Black hygiene as far as looking like, "How am I supporting my Blackness?" It's almost like a Blackness annual report you do for yourself.
Zakiya Gibbons: That is what it feels like, for me at least.
James: It's like, what does it mean to radically think about your time and be like, "How many minutes of my day is being dedicated to serving Blackness?"
Veralyn: [music] My next beat, is that I wanted to talk about specific memories from Black history parties.
Eric: For me, it's just like the knock-out conversations. It's like, every time somebody came through the door, I ended up hugging. It's just that they embrace, that touch community it's powerful.
Zakiya: You just hug so many people at Veralyn's house, and I'm not even a hugger.
Eric: I'm not either, don't touch me.
Zakiya: I remember you, Eric. I remember coming in late. I literally remember that embrace.
Eric: I feel each one of those. It's the comfort.
Tracie: I remember bringing Popeye's to your house, Veralyn and there was already Popeye's there. I love that. Two different people had the same thought.
Saidu: The thing I'm remembering now that I really appreciate after this conversation is that we played all kinds of Black music from the 2000s and '90s and everybody was rocking because we all knew that, but also we played Afrobeats and everybody was still rocking. Even people that didn't even know it.
Veralyn: This was before Black Panther, when it was cool.
Saidu: To have everybody vibing out to different Afrobeat songs at your parties, I think it made me feel more included that my-- I wasn't born in America, I'm not from America, I'm an immigrant, so I think I felt-- I felt more included in this idea of Black History month when we played Afrobeats and everybody was jamming along with it.
Veralyn: The memory that I think about and I literally-- it's almost like a drug, I'm not-- I could only imagine because I've never done coke or anything but they always say, that high, that first high, you could never get it back. The high that I've been chasing ever since the first time I did this party was a moment where I remember just everyone was in their corners talking and then-
-the beat for, “Knuck if you Buck,” started-
Friend: I knew you were going to say that.
Veralyn: -and everybody came from their corners and was on the middle of the kitchen.
Veralyn: It was like, [singing] "Yeah, we knuckin," and everyone's screaming at the top of their lungs. It was everyone that's jamming to this ratchet-like Black anthem and everyone knowing the words. [music]
Zakiya: I remember that because it wasn't just like, the music and how that song always unifies Black people because it's our unofficial Black anthem, but it's also, I think, the physicality of it, it just like it felt so cathartic to just, a good angry, you don't need to feel turnt. It's not anger, but it's just toughness. It's cathartic, but it's just like turntness and it's just like pumping through your body and to have that energy reverberate off of all the other Black bodies in the room. It's like, how do I do this say this non-sexually?
Tracie: We had shared experience of release and ecstacy, how about that?
James: It was a release valve.
Zakiya: Yes, “Knuck if you Buck” is a release valve.
Eric: I think that song works like that just because, it's normally not okay, for us to express that type of energy enmasse like that, consistently. That's going to freak somebody out, the police are going to come, [laughter] and we're going to have to answer some questions. In those spaces, I could be a little angry. I'm not trying to hit nobody, but somebody pissed me off today. I feel that, somebody pissed you off today.
Zakiya: Yes. I was brought up in a lot of white spaces and I actually remember-- I'm just now realizing I felt this way hindsight, but being one of the only Black kids, all these white kids-- I remember being kind of cringy, internal eye rolls because, "Now y'all want to talk about Rosa Parks, now y'all want dah, dah, dah," and then people turn to me like, "Oh my god, Zakiya, you should play Rosa Parks. Zakiya you should play We Shall Overcome on the Bells." Which I did.
I'm not mad to do it, but I remember it made me feel like another, it was weird for me because celebrating and these white spaces, and especially coming from a household that's super Black. All of us, me my siblings all have African names, I'm very Afrocentric. My middle names is Rose after Rosa Parks, so just having that be normal, my household and then go to a white space and be like, "Oh, we're doing this now." It was strange, to say the least.
Eric: Zakiya said, “I'm steeped in the blood of my ancestors, it flows through me everywhere.”
Zakiya: Right. I'm actually about that life. I think that's what felt strange. I usually feel very proud about my Blackness and down to talk about it, but not with you all. Not the way you all want to do it, which is why I appreciate your party's because it's like, okay by the people for the people, we don't have to like focus on our trauma or talking about the same five civil rights leaders, of course, all respect, but it feels so packaged and just spirit list, which is the opposite of Black people, and your party was just so spirit full.
Kai: That was Eric Eddings, James T. Green, Saidu Tejan-Thomas, Tracy Hunte, and Zakiya Gibbons with our senior producer, Veralyn Williams. That last thing that Zakiya said, I think that's got something to do with my own weird feelings about Black History Month, the fact that I can feel like it's so packaged, so focused on the same five race leaders trapped in Amber, spiritless. Coming up, I'll talk with the historian about the origins of that package, and what it was supposed to achieve the history of Black History Month, that's next.
Kai: Depending on your age, or just how much you've paid attention to this annual ritual, many of you probably know Black History Month as something that began in 1976, that's when President Ford made his first official national proclamation of it. But the history of Black History Month goes back many, many decades before that, and it is complicated. To learn that history, we called up Dr. Pero Dagbovie, he's a history professor and Associate Dean in the graduate school at Michigan State University. He's the author of many books but perhaps the most notable bit of his work for our purposes, is that he's the editor of the Journal of African American History.
This journal was founded more than a century ago by the very man who initially imagined what would become today's Black History Month. Dr. Dagbovie, welcome to the show.
Pero Dagbovie: Thank you Kai, for having me.
Kai: I alluded there in your introduction to the person who initially imagined what would become Black History Month. This is Carter G. Woodson, he's sort of known as the father of Black history, and I feel like he's one of those names. If you're a Black kid growing up in a home that does a lot around our history, as I did, Carter G. Woodson is up there in the first names you learn. Let's just linger on him as a person for a minute. Tell us about Carter Woodson, who was he in the early 20th century, and what was his own origin story?
Pero: Yes. Carter Woodson has a very interesting origin story. Dr. Woodson was born in December of 1875, in Virginia, and he grew up in what could be considered as poverty on his father's farm. He worked a range of manual labor jobs throughout his life. His parents were formerly enslaved, and as a child, he had to work for the household and the farm, so he only attended school for about five months out of every year. He once remarked that he learned the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic in his late teens, and so he grew up struggling.
There's a quote in 1920, from a letter that he wrote to Jesse Moreland, where he said the following, "You should know enough about me to understand that I'm the most independently hungry man in the United States. I once drove a garbage wagon in my hometown, toiled for six years as a coal miner, often saw the day when my mother had her breakfast and did not know where should find her dinner."
He grows up very poor and struggling, ends up going to high school in West Virginia, attends Berea College and graduates in 1903. Goes on to get a master's degree from the University of Chicago in 1908. Then he goes to Harvard, and receives a Ph.D. in history in 1912, becoming the second African American to do so after WB Dubois did so in 1890s. He has a story that demonstrates rising over many, many obstacles. I think that would inform his later life.
Kai: As we can hear from that bio, he's a tenacious man.
Pero: Indeed. He never lost that, "Working-class ethos throughout his life." I think that that's what drove him to work 18 hour days for the cause of Black history as if it was a life and death struggle as he always used to remark.
Kai: So in the summer of 1915, he goes to a celebration of the 50th anniversary of emancipation in Chicago. That's a few years after he's gone to Harvard and it's worth pointing out there, we're not even a full adult life away from slavery and the civil war here, that's important context. This is where he gets inspired to create something new but before we get to that inspiration first, tell us about this convening, this particular convening in Chicago, that he was at, what was that like?
Pero: The by-product of that convening is the founding of a very important organization. The organization is called the association for the study of Negro life and history. That's what it was called when it was founded in Chicago in 1915. This organization was the first major organization to be dedicated to the study, the rigorous academic study of African-American life and history, as well as dedicated to the popularization of Black history amongst the "Masses of African-Americans."
He creates this organization in Chicago with a handful of other folks, and the organization is still around today under a different name. Of course, it's called The Association for The Study of African-American life and history. It is testimony to Carter, G Woodson being a Black institution builder . That is, he realized that he had to have an organization with a whole bunch of foot soldiers to kind of execute this plan of popularizing and legitimizing the study of Black history.
Kai: Tell me about that popularizing piece. The point was, he wanted to popularize it amongst Black people.
Pero: Yes, his dual cause in my estimation was number one to legitimize the academic rigorous study of Black history within the Academy. He had the credentials, of course, to do so with a PhD from Harvard. He wanted to establish a field, a rigorous field with its own journal, with its own society, to combat the anti-Black stereotypes that existed in the United States, historical freshen during the progressive era. That's one component. The other component, as you mentioned, was to popularize and democratize the study of Black history, where he wanted the masses of his people to know about their past.
He wanted the masses of their people, especially children, to study their past so that they could gain inspiration from their ancestors and embark on a brighter future of accomplishments. He believed that one social identity was inextricably bound to one's notion of his, her, or their past. Those were the two main mantras of his movement and he was a master, I think, at balancing both perspectives and approaches simultaneously.
Kai: It's interesting though, to think about this idea of popularizing, making sure that Black children, in particular, were studying their past. Again, we're 50 years out of slavery at this point. It's just hard to wrap your head around that.
Pero: It is hard to wrap one's head around it. That's why he was a visionary in my estimation. He noticed that folks, social identity, and self-esteem was very much linked to what they knew that their ancestors did or didn't do. If you're a young Black child coming of age during the era of Jim Crow segregation, and you're constantly told that your people have no history that's worth anything, it's easier for the oppressor to oppress someone by creating such a fallacy.
He wanted to challenge that and to have young people learn their history so that it again, could be part of their day-to-day life and culture. That's what Negro history week is actually part of, is his mass education movement that was multifaceted.
Kai: Let's back up a step there, because you mentioned Negro history week, but let's, let's walk through it. He creates the organization. The organization creates a journal, which you now edit all these years later with one of these goals being to get Black people, in particular, to know our history, to celebrate it. He thinks, I guess, that people, the readers of it are going to pick it up and run with it. Did that happen right away? How did Black people respond?
Pero: It took some time, because first of all, after he created the association, he made the decision to make it an open organization. It wasn't just for scholars, you did not have to have a bachelor's degree, a master's degree in history, or any field to join the organization. It was open to all those in the Black community who wanted to join the organization and contribute to the organization so that he could disseminate information about African-American life in history. He started out by creating the journal of Negro history in 1916, but it was more of a scholarly journal and it wasn't accessible to the masses of people.
He addressed that by creating his own publishing house. His publishing house was called Associated Publishers Incorporated. He created that in the 1920s, about three or four years before Negro history week, to publish books, some of them were scientific, but the majority of them were written for the masses of people, including his famous book called The Negro in Our History, which sold more than 40,000 copies by the early 1940s.
He gradually adopted this approach of increasingly popularizing Black history, even before Negro history week was officially launched in 1926. Another thing that he did was open up an extension division or a home study program where he had leading scholars who would correspond with people who wanted to take courses, basic courses in Black history. It's very much like today's, e-learning movement in this era of COVID. He also would speak at various engagements throughout the country, usually for free just to pass the word. He would visit elementary schools and he encouraged communities across the country to create Black history clubs, to help engage in the study of Black history at the community level.
Kai: Can we talk about the context in which he's doing all this work and in his focus on, you mentioned the academic rigor and particularly this use of scientific study, the scientific study of Black life and Black history. Why was that so important in this moment? Why the scientific distinction?
Pero: It's a very good question. We have to keep in mind that he is operating as a historian after he gets his PhD in 1912 in the progressive era. During that period from the late 19th century through the early 20th century to the 1920s, is when he's coming of age as a historian. It's during this time period that the United States historical profession is becoming professionalized. There is not a space for African-American history within this US historical profession. In fact, leading historians at the time are saying that Black people have no history and that they're inferior and most of the stuff that's being written about African-Americans in us, history is not positive.
He had to engage in this corrective history if you will. He had to challenge the racist history that was being written about Black people that was being used to justify Black oppression. He had to do that scientifically because if he didn't, it wouldn't have been acknowledged as being rigorous. If you go back and read the early issues of the journal of Negro history, you will notice that the articles are densely footnoted, densely researched, that the journal actually the scholarship that's being produced by American historians who are in the American historical association.
He created this, what we call a parallel institution. This institution to study Black history that ran parallel during the period of Jim Crow segregation to the mainstream or white stream institutions. It was very important to have a seat at the table, and there are very few African-Americans with PhDs across the border and history at this time. He used his Harvard training to battle for the cause of Black history within this us historical space that was a predominantly white male.
Kai: But I also wonder about that word scientific, I guess it makes me think about the dawn of eugenics at that time and this idea of whether or not Black people were actually human beings. I guess I wonder about that, was there some degree of like trying to disprove that idea?
Pero: Sure, there's a lot of "pseudo-scientific evidence," that's lingering around at this time and that scholarship that he's producing historically, is seeking to totally upend that. He's doing something that generations of Black historians who didn't have PhDs had been doing ever since the antebellum era. The earliest writers of Black history came of age during the period of slavery, they just didn't have the credentials of a Ph.D. Somebody like George Washington Williams, who is considered to be one of the first Black historians because he wrote scientific/rigorous scholarship, is considered to be one of the first historians but he didn't have a Ph.D.
When I'm using the word scientific, I'm also talking about the disciplinary methods of the field and of history at this time where you're supposed to do a certain type of research, you're supposed to examine historical documents and archives, you're supposed to cite your sources, you're supposed to make knowledge claims that have evidence, you're not just straight up making stuff up.
Kai: He decides to create Negro History Week ultimately in February 1926, that's where all of this work culminates in. As I understand it, there's some debate over why February, which all of us are wondering now. I think it had something to do with the fact that both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln had birthdays in February but then like, there's also-- we still say it's the shortest month no wonder. Why February, why was it February?
Pero: Yes, Dick Gregory always used to say that, "They gave us the shortest month," but yes, you are correct, that it was initiated during February, in honor of the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. It's a no-brainer, why Woodson would celebrate Frederick Douglass for all that he did as an anti-slavery advocate and Black freedom fighter, and folks will probably question, "Why Abraham Lincoln," and I would argue that at the time if you were to compare Abraham Lincoln's approach to Black people, compared to other US presidents, that his signing of the Emancipation Proclamation automatically put him in a different category, even though we know that the Emancipation Proclamation did not abolish slavery, that was accomplished by the 13th amendment.
But that's the reason why he chose February symbolically is because of the birth dates of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and I believe that he articulates that in an article that is Woodson, that he wrote, outlining the purpose and mission of Negro History Week.
Kai: Dr. Dagbovie, what about you? What's your own personal relationship to this month? Obviously, you've dedicated your life's work to learning and promoting our history but on a personal level if you can think back before you were smartypants, Ph.D. and all the rest of it. When did you start connecting to this history in general?
Pero: I think like many people, they first learned about Black History Month when they're young and in school. I remember going to school whether it was Middle School or High School and February rolls around and then all of a sudden, the information in your textbooks that's in the shaded box, all of a sudden gets discussed. Then you'll see maybe a picture of Booker T. Washington, Langston Hughes, or some others up on the wall. That's how I first, I think, remember it, but as I became older, like, maybe early in college years, I started to take it more seriously. I recognized how it has been, how shall we say, commercialized and mainstream.
I also enjoyed having the opportunity to really spend some time during a certain month celebrating, and that's one of the challenges that we face today is that many people have been questioning the validity of Black History Month, and I understand your concerns that you articulated. There's a film called More Than a Month by Shukree Tilghman, where he talks all about this. Where he questions, "Why do we still need this isn't this archaic?" I think that there are ways that it can be improved and become more effectual in how it's delivered.
That should really take place in the K through 12 system. I think it's here to stay and I think that's a good thing. I just think that we have to revisit the past to see how effective it was back in the day and how we can perhaps build upon that.
Kai: Let's go to Lex in Jamaica Queens. Lex, welcome to the show. I understand you've got a question about Black History Month.
Lex: Thanks for inviting me here, thanks for having the show. Good evening. How do you think in our modern times, that we can use the education specifically around a Black identity, and the aspects of our history which can hold us up to do that, to help inform the identity of Black children, in particular. I'm a father of Black children, and also Black children that are biracial and I don't want them only to feel the weight of Blackness, that we've overcome only the things that-- microaggressions down to the things that are just patently unfair, that we all know of. I want them to know and understand the glories of what we've overcome, rather than only being under the weight of what we still have to endure. I understand that this operates in the area of academia but how can we take that into everyday lives and have that be more of awareness that translates into self-awareness, which translates into something that's more expansive and real?
Kai: Thank you, Lex. And Dr. Dagbovie, if I can add to that, to put it in Carter Watson's mind too, did he think of this as a Black pride project? That's what I’m hearing.
Pero: Yes, he did think it was a Black pride project and that's a very good question that was raised. It means a lot to me because I'm the father of three young men now. They're all college-age now. I remember when they were in elementary and middle school, and the time that they would learn about Black history would be when there were discussions about slavery when there were discussions about maybe the Harlem Renaissance in passing, then when there were discussions about the civil rights movement. When folks will talk about slavery in the civil rights movement, it was usually couched in oppression. One of the things that we have to really keep in mind is that when we teach our youth about Black history, there has to be a delicate balance between themes of resistance and themes of oppression.
We can't understand the accomplishments and the glory without understanding the monumental obstacles that have had to be overcome. Kids have a high tolerance for understanding this stuff, as long as we can break it down and keep it real with them. I don't buy the excuse that there are certain things that we cannot share with our children. There's a whole bunch of good children's books out there right now about Black history. There's a lot of good games that one can buy. It means you got to walk through your kids with it and be ready to answer some difficult questions that should not be a yes or no response. History is very messy. Woodson believed this as well, because what his goal was with Negro History Week was actually to integrate the study of Black history into the school systems.
Kai: Can you talk a little bit more. This wasn't supposed to just be a week it was supposed to be a catalyst for something more in schools.
Pero: Exactly. When he had Black History Week he wanted it to evolve into Black history year. He knew in 1926, that there couldn't be some massive reform in the American educational system that would all of a sudden "Integrate the study of Black history," throughout history and social science courses so he wanted to use this week as a jumpstart.
He really focused on the children and he focused on Black school teachers and schools to discuss Black history during that week intensely so that eventually it could linger on into other months. It was aimed, as was said, in instilling a sense of pride and self esteem in Black students but at the same time, Woodson, perhaps optimistically believed that if whites knew more about the achievements that Blacks had done over the years, that they might treat them more humanely.
That they might not use justification of Black people not having a history to oppress them. It was a social reform movement, if you will. It was a movement that had a lot of psychological ramifications to it. I think that in today's world, knowledge of the past can definitely shape how people think. It does everyday. History is with us everyday. It's part of our identity.
Kai: Certainly the premise of this show. Getting back to the origin story of the month, the week, Negro History Week, really took off and spread far and wide. I actually think we have a clip we can play. By the time we get to 1956 here in New York City, it becomes declared Negro History Week officially. I think here is our mayor then, 1956, Robert Wagner proclaiming Negro History Week in the city.
Mayor Wagner: Whereas the observance of Negro History Week this year will fittingly culminate in a public tribute to those who accomplished through the highest tribunal, a decision that indicates the successful attainment in American life.
Kai: I just played that little clip to ask you, at what point did white people start to get on board with this? At what point did it become a thing that, a mayor, a white mayor of New York City would be proclaiming Negro History Week? This is still pre-civil rights movement.
Pero: Right. Thanks for playing that clip. That was really awesome. It took off right away. That's because Woodson and his colleagues used the radio, they used community centers, they had pageants, they had plays, they had speaker series, they were able to really publicize this throughout the community. It wasn't only within the Black community that some of these events took place. It trickled into white communities as well, who saw the value in Carter Woodson's work. Charting the evolution of it, it's difficult, but if it starts in 1926, and that clip you played was from 1956, it shows you that within a couple of decades, you have politicians at the local level of big cities who are acknowledging this.
A lot of that has to do with the fact that New York City, at this time, I'm sure had a branch of the association there and they were also probably putting some pressure on folks to acknowledge it. That's why Woodson created this large umbrella organization that had branches in all the major cities, so that these different branches would take up the mantle of celebrating Negro History Week throughout these different areas throughout the country. It was something that was was picked up gradually throughout the country and it largely depended upon, in many cases, the Black population within those cities.
Kai: Let's squeeze in one more question from callers, Deacon in Harlem. Deacon, welcome to the show.
Deacon: Hi, thank you very much. First of all, I just want to say how much I appreciate the show and appreciate you doctor and I just want to make a brief comment, if I may, on the importance of Black History Month. I'll be 86 in February, this coming-- I think my first 12 years were totally Black. I was also born in Philadelphia, I was raised in Winston Salem, North Carolina. All of my teachers, first to sixth grade, they all looked like me. I can remember, about third grade, being introduced to what was called Negro History. We had a little primer. I know that name, Carter G. Woodson, we knew those names knew about the NAACP.
We studied history, European history, history of the state of North Carolina and Negro History. In the community that I was raised in, we didn't pick cotton although we had professional farmers but they all were blue-collar workers, working in the tobacco fields in Winston, Salem. I can appreciate that history. When I came to New York, I saw readily the contradiction of what the racism was. Unfortunately, many of my classmates, although we went to Catholic school, they didn't have the understanding that I had of who I was. I can appreciate that.
Kai: Thank you so much for that comment. Dr. Dagbovie, in these last few minutes, I guess one of the things that I want to ask you about is where this all went because pretty quickly, actually, Carter G. Woodson got frustrated with it. He started talking about charlatans and the like, who were preaching it. What was he frustrated with?
Pero: He was frustrated with the fact that there were different people who started to capitalize on the popularity of this commemoration. People who started to make money off of it. He got upset with that because the movement was not to make money for individuals, the movement was to raise the consciousness of people about Black history. If any money was to be made, it was to go back into the association because the association was like a Mutual Aid Society. The association did not make a whole lot of money off of its marketing of Black history, and it's celebrating of Black history. All the money that went back into the association sustained its mass education movement and research trajectory.
So he got frustrated with those people who he called silver-tongued orators, who came into the community during Black History Month days and claimed that they knew about Black history and would make money off of it. He spoke out about that a whole lot. He did not want people not to be down with the cause. He literally lived Black History every moment of his life and believed that if he didn't do what he did, that African American people would have been ideologically exterminated. That's how he took his cause of Black history.
Kai: Dr. Pero Dagbovie is a history professor, an associate dean at the Graduate School of Michigan State University and the editor of the Journal of African American History, which was created more than a century ago by Carter G. Woodson. I'm Kai Wright. Thanks for spending this time with us. Happy Black History Month.
United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC studios, Jared Paul makes the podcast version, Kevin Bristow and Matthew Marando were at the boards for the live show. Our team also includes Carolyn Adams, Emily Botein, Jenny Casas, Marianne McCune, Christopher Werth, and Veralyn Williams. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Karen Frillmann is our executive producer. I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter at Kai_Wright and of course, I hope you will join us for the live version of the show next Sunday 6pm Eastern. You can stream it at wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker, "Play WNYC." Until then, thanks for listening and take care of yourselves.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.