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Honoring the past for inspiration in the present

Americans have officially recognized February as Black History Month since 1976, when President Gerald Ford called upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” But really, the intention to ensure the richness and vitality of Black American culture is honored and preserved goes back much further, to a man named Carter G. Woodson.

An historian, author, journalist, and founder of an organization called the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), this son of former slaves was only the second black man to earn a PhD from Harvard University in 1912, after W.E.B. DuBois. It wasn’t easy, helping out on his family’s farm, and later working as a coal miner, but he was relentless in his pursuit of an education. Clearly, he succeeded, and his achievements are immortalized in his own quote, “No man knows what he can do until he tries,” from his work, The Mis-Education of the Negro.

His real passion was history, and he fully expected everyone to share this interest. To him, the black experience in shaping America was too important to be relegated to the annals of history books, especially when there was such a long way to go. He chose instead to use black history and culture as a weapon in the struggle for racial equity. And so, through the efforts of the organization he founded, the ASNLH, Woodson launched Negro History Week in 1926, to ensure that school children learn the contributions, the struggles, and the truth of black history in the United States.

Why February?

Although Negro History Week was introduced in 1926, Woodson got the idea to celebrate the event during the month of February in 1915 after attending a celebration in Illinois for the 50th anniversary of the 13th Amendment. The 13th Amendment, as we know, abolished slavery in 1863 in the Confederate states that seceded from the U.S.: Mississippi, Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. But it wasn’t until two years later, on June 19, 1865 that all people held as property in the United States were officially freed from any form of enslavement. Which is why we celebrate Juneteenth, in June. February is also the month when Abraham Lincoln was born, and the 13th Amendment was adopted during his presidency.

The 1920’s - Black culture steps into the mainstream

Woodson’s concept also came at an auspicious time for African American culture in the U.S. and overseas. There was the rise of the Harlem Renaissance where writers like Langston Hughes, Claude McKay and the poet Georgia Douglas Johnson wrote about the black experience in America. There were also the many musicians who shaped every generation of musician since, like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Jimmie Lunceford, gaining audiences not only among Black, urban populations, but also among music-lovers around the world. And then there were artists like Aaron Douglas, Richmond Barthe, and Lois Mailou Jones, who each created works celebrating blackness.

Woodson’s goals were to prove to the world, and especially to white America, that the many and varied contributions by Blacks in this country played important roles in shaping who we are. He believed that by celebrating the artists, the inventors, the educators, the writers and poets, and everyone in between, he would prove the unlimited value of these contributions, and that racial equality would follow.

His other goal was to highlight Black life, and preserve its history, at a time when few cultural and educational institutions took interest. But ultimately, Woodson believed Negro History Week, which evolved into Black History Month, could transform and inform the conversation on racial equality.

So, during this Black History Month, despite the progress made in race relations since that first Negro History Week, Carter G. Woodson’s vision for Black history remains relevant.

Celebrating Black History Month

How can you recognize and participate in the celebrations around Black History Month? There are many ways to support Black history, Black businesses, and Black contributions to the evolution of our society. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) compiled a list of ways to commemorate the occasion throughout the month of February, which we encourage you to explore and support. Here are a few from the list:

  • Support Black businesses in your community – it’s easy to find Black-owned shops, restaurants, and other establishments near you. Communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by the global health crisis, and can use your support.
  • Read a book by a Black author – Black writers have sparked brilliance in their literary contributions. If you’re not sure where to start, PBS has a list of 10 Black authors to read including James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison.
  • Make a donation to one of the 107 HBCUs hit hard by the pandemic – these include FAMU, Grambling State University, Howard University, Morehouse and Spelman College, and have produced legends like Jessye Norman, Spike Lee and Joe Black.

IREM and Black History Month

At IREM, we also want to recognize the achievements of our members and others across the real estate profession. To honor Black History Month, and to contribute to the education, recognition, and celebration, we’re committing to the following activities:

  • Educating our members, staff, and partners on the history behind Black History Month and its importance.
  • Recognizing Black members, notable figures in real estate, and inventors who’ve helped shape the buildings we live and work in today. Follow along on social media throughout the month to read about the achievements of these individuals.
  • Inviting our Diversity Advisory Board to contribute their voices to our blog, and share what Black History Month means to them.

Our members are always central to what we do. While Black History Month gives us the opportunity to highlight our Black members and their contributions, we’ll continue to feature and share their perspectives, accomplishments, and contributions throughout the year.

Comments

Nice blog. Looking forward to seeing more Black History content a new hearing from Shannon & Waddell

Reply

Thank you for sharing the detailed explanation of the importance of BHM.

Reply

What a wonderful tribute.

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