The concept of Black History as a celebratory event originated in 1915 in Chicago, IL when Harvard-educated historian, Dr. Carter G. Woodson attended an exhibition at the Chicago Coliseum to mark the 50th anniversary of emancipation. Inspired by the exhibits that showcased the progress of Black communities, Dr. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History). It was through this channel, he and colleagues launched “Negro History Week”, intended to help chronicle the achievements of black men and women in an effort to further advance progress for black communities. The designated week in February intentionally coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass as a nod to their notable impact on the lives of Black Americans. Over time, celebrations expanded from civic organizations to schools to houses of worship.
With the Civil Rights movement as a backdrop and through advocacy efforts, as part of the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized February as Black History Month. President Ford expressed the desire for the American public to, “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” The phrase “too-often neglected” highlights the core of Black History: Black History is about inclusion. It’s about elevating contributions of Black Americans from footnotes and infusing them fully into American consciousness.
Today, Black History Month takes place within a business context full of transformation flurry across industries. Numerous companies are frenetically looking to shift their cultures in order to enable strategic objectives and align employees. Many are doing so with an intentional focus on diversity and inclusion, which raises some thought-provoking questions:
- How impactful would it be if corporate commemoration of Black History no longer disappeared into content archives beginning March 1?
- How transformative would it be if media firms and publication houses told the stories of American greats like— Benjamin Banneker (mathematician and surveyor for the nation’s capital); Phillis Wheatley (African slave and poet); Matthew Henson (Artic voyager); Alice Ball (chemist and developer of first successful treatment for leprosy); Garrett Morgan (patent holder of early 3-way traffic light) and George Johnson Sr. (founder of Johnson Products Company, Chicago-based cosmetics empire and first black-owned company on the American Stock Exchange)—so they become woven seamlessly into our everyday lives and language and as commonly known, referenced and regarded as Lewis and Clark, George Washington, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Blackwell and Warren Buffet?
- And how seismic would it be if organizations led the way in modeling diversity, inclusion and equity, pushing social structures to follow?
It would be great if we could point to more examples like Teen Vogue, which over the last several years has achieved an inclusive culture tour-de-force. However, attempts at full inclusion, no matter the industry, are often still limited to reflecting diverse voices and stories in designated, called out channels, begging the separate but equal query.
Today, our challenge is to celebrate Black History not as an obligatory, time-limited event but all year, because Black History is American history.