Black History Is American History Is Our History
Donna Van Cleve
Every February as a school librarian, I would decorate the library’s big window display for Black History Month. For years I scavenged for decorating items at garage sales, and I was fortunate to pick up a metal IKEA loft bed (in pieces) on the curb that a family was throwing away. My father and I reassembled it in the library, and it made the perfect backdrop for monthly displays.
I tried to do something different each year for Black History Month, and one of my favorites was hanging several of my mother’s quilts to shine a light on the quilt system of the Underground Railroad. Some research said that slaves used certain quilts to send messages to those along the Underground Railroad route, but I read other sources later that said that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove the quilt system was actually used. I like to think it was a perfect way to send hidden messages in plain sight to bring people to freedom.
Packing paper gave the impression of tobacco leaves hanging and drying, which originally was the main crop slaves planted and harvested. Cotton came along later.
The IKEA loft bed made the perfect backdrop for window displays.
One year I learned about writer and historian Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), who made it his life’s work to gather and archive as much African American history as he could in response to the lack of Black history and contributions of African Americans in mainstream history books. He established Negro History Week in February 1926 in honor of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14). I was surprised to learn that Woodson hoped that Black History Week would eventually go away when Black history would be so immersed in American history it would no longer be needed. But that hasn’t happened yet. In 1976, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), originally founded by Woodson, expanded the week-long celebration to the entire month of February, which became Black History Month (BHM). In 1978, President Jimmy Carter officially recognized Black History Month, which has been celebrated ever since.
While working as a public library director during the 1990s, I had the mentality that BHM was primarily black people’s history and celebration of it. But after I learned about Woodson, I realized that Black history was my history, too, because it is American history. The same goes for Native American history, Asian American history, Hispanic American history, and so on. And until we all understand that, we’re still keeping American history segregated.
In 2015, I participated in my first Martin Luther King March in my hometown. That first year, there were probably half a dozen non-blacks marching. I had no idea what to expect, and even wondered if I might be marching with a bunch of angry, bitter people. But the opposite was the case. I actually felt very much at home when I realized that most of the marchers were Christians like me. The March was joyous, and we sang hymns most of the way to City Hall where the march ended. Every year, more and more non-Blacks are joining the march, so people are recognizing that Black history is a part of all of us.
Carter G. Woodson
2020 MLK March crossing the overpass into downtown Taylor, Texas; photo by Debbie Kovar
My sons, Jack Van Cleve and Blake Huffman, visiting from Washington, D.C., joined Yvonne, Maverick & me for the 2020 MLK March
So in a small way to honor Woodson, I’m posting this article in the June issue of Second Wind, and will continue to use months along with February to integrate Black history into American history. Color adjectives will always accompany those people in history who broke racial barriers in the pursuit of equal rights and in accomplishing noteworthy feats. I believe we will finally arrive to full integration in documenting current American history when we stop adding modifiers, and simply refer to people by name and deed. Why do we apply modifiers of color or hyphenated countries of origin to certain groups of Americans whose ancestors have lived many generations here, but we don't do that across the board? That makes no sense except to continue to reveal that we have a ways to go to accept everyone equally as Americans. Lord help us.
Donna Van Cleve
History, Holidays & Celebrations