Black History Month is not simply to recognize famous Black Americans, but a time to celebrate and honor the history, culture, traditions, and joy of Black people. After all, Black history is American history.
The origins of Black History Month date back to as early as 1915, when Carter G. Woodson and Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). Through this work, a national Negro History week was launched in February 1926 (Onion, Sullivan & Mullen, 2022). Black History Month was formally recognized by President Gerald Ford in 1976.
Education has always been an important and valued piece of the Black experience in America. Enslaved people were unable to access education, in the form of anti-literacy laws which prohibited teaching an enslaved person how to read. However, learning is not something that can be easily stifled when there is inherent intellect that drives a thirst for new knowledge. Many of the enslaved found ways to access education through any means necessary. While the punishments for breaking these laws were cruel and inhumane, it did not stop many from taking the risk to learn.
In 1896, the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson U.S. Supreme Court Decision established "separate but equal" as a way to justify segregated public places. When Homer Plessy refused to leave his seat on a train because he was not in the "blacks-only" section, he was arrested, and then filed a petition that reached the U.S Supreme Court. It was through this landmark decision that Jim Crow laws were born. These laws essentially upheld segregated restaurants, buses, theaters, water fountains, restrooms, and schools.
However, despite the significant roadblocks of anti-literacy laws and subsequent segregation laws, education in the Black community continued to thrive.
In 1954, Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka was another landmark U.S. Supreme Court case which sought to reverse Plessy v. Ferguson, this time based on unequal educational opportunities. Thurgood Marshall, who would go on to become the first Black U.S Supreme Court Justice, argued for the plaintiffs, that separate school systems were "inherently unequal" and therefore violated the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. The court unanimously agreed, and this decision has had longstanding impact on the educational ecosystem. Some would agree that this decision extends beyond education and helped to shape the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's.
While it is important to understand the laws, policies, and practices that have shaped education for Black Americans, it is also valuable to honor the Black educators who have inspired, mentored, and molded learners from every walk of life. Their commitment to cultivating minds and shaping our world with new and innovative ideas is how our country can continue to uphold life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Just a few of the educators who have left an indelible imprint on the fabric of America include: Anna Julia Cooper, W.E.B. Du Bois, Fanny Jackson Coppin, Booker T. Washington, Nathan Hare, Mary McCleod Bethune, Marva Collins, & Rita Pierson.
Reflecting and learning from the extensive history of Black Americans is one way to honor the past, but also provide hope for a better future, given the sacrifices of so many who advocated for change and sought to make the world better for tomorrow.