The importance of black history and why it should be celebrated beyond February
Carter G. Woodson started the tradition of celebrating black history.
In 1925, Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson, known as the "Father of Black History," had a bold idea.
That year, he announced "Negro History Week" -- a celebration of a people that many in this country at the time believed had no place in history.
The response to the event, first celebrated in February 1926, a month that included the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, was overwhelming -- as educators, scholars and philanthropists stepped forward to endorse the effort. Fifty years later, coinciding with nation's bicentennial and in the wake of the civil rights movement, the celebration was expanded to a month after President Gerald R. Ford decreed a national observance.
Since Woodson's death in 1950, the organization that he founded, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History -- now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) -- has fought to keep his legacy alive.
Now, nearly 105 years after its founding, one of the organization's biggest challenges is keeping people engaged beyond February.
"One cannot discuss the African American freedom struggle or the civil rights movement without paying attention to white allies who were working alongside black people," Lionel Kimble, vice president for programs at ASALH, told ABC News. "One of the biggest issues we see, especially for those non-black folks, is that the emphasis on black history is divisive and some mistakenly label it 'racist.'"
"But, if we continue to emphasize that all Americans worked towards these common goals, then everyone can see themselves as part of the larger mission."
ASALH, which holds events to promote and celebrate black history all throughout the year, said the organization has made major gains toward promoting African American history to a wider audience, but there are still too many who only recognize black history during the month of February and ignore it for the rest of the year.
"It's disappointing," Kimble said. "But we have to really build on the study of black history and get people to understand the important roles of black folks in the larger narrative of the United States."
Noelle Trent, director of interpretation, collections and education at the National Civil Rights Museum, said it's wonderful to mobilize for Black History Month festivities, but "there's no one season for it. It's continuous."
"We do black history 365 days a year," Trent told ABC News. "We're telling the story of the African American struggle for civil rights, for human rights, and all aspects, through our programming and through our exhibition in various capacities throughout the year."
The museum, which is located at the former Lorraine Motel in Memphis where civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, said it pays special attention to Black History Month and uses it as a time to emphasize educating children about black heritage. The museum specializes in the civil rights era, but Trent said Woodson's mission guides just about all of their initiatives.
"When 'Negro History Week' was founded, black history was not being talked about or written about and people were saying African Americans had no presence in history," Trent said. "What we're able to do here at the museum today through our work is really amplify that historical presence."
"Woodson was dedicated to making African American history accessible to the everyday person. He wanted African Americans, and all Americans, really, to know the African American story and to see themselves in it because representation is power," she added.
As a part of her work with the museum, Trent said she is frustrated that black history tends to be ignored by popular culture once February ends. Instead, she thinks Black History Month should be seen as a "starting point" for a larger conversation about how to incorporate black history into American history as a whole.
"I understand that culturally organizations are in different places, but ideally in 2020 we would like people to be more inclusive. But if you start just doing it in February, then the next step is, how can we incorporate this into other days of the year," she said.
If companies, schools and other organizations "keep relegating the story to just February," they're missing the point of Black History Month, according to Trent.
Kimble, of ASALH, said the organization has seen a growing number of partnership interests from corporate donors and organizations that aren't necessarily "black oriented," as more companies look to address issues surrounding diversity and inclusion.
He said the increase is "very encouraging," but it isn't enough to indicate a significant trend just yet.
"I would like to companies do more," Trent said. "But all we can do is keep pushing and educating folks who have an interest in black history and black studies."
ASALH picks a theme each year to bring to the public's attention important developments that merit emphasis. This year's theme is "African Americans and the Vote."
The year 2020 marks the centennial of the 19th Amendment and the culmination of the women’s suffrage movement. It also marks the sesquicentennial of the 15th Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote in 1870, following the Civil War.
"Through voting-rights campaigns and legal suits from the turn of the 20th century to the mid-1960s, African Americans made their voices heard as to the importance of the vote," ASALH says on its website. "Indeed the fight for black voting rights continues in the courts today."
Kimble said the group has events scheduled throughout the year that will deal with civic education, voter suppression, voting rights and other issues that are tethered to this year's theme, but its main goal is to engage with people outside of academia to educate them about the depth of their heritage.
"This isn't a conversation that only black folks should be having. If we look at ourselves as a diverse nation, I think everyone should have these conversations about their history," Kimble said. "We want people to see that their stories are valuable and that you don't have to be this internationally renowned figure to do great things."