“Do you remember when February used to be American History Month? This ‘Black History Month’ stuff is just terrible.”
from The Gods Are Bored, 2007
Yes, it’s true. Before February became the province of Black history, the turf belonged to the proponents of “American history.” The heart of winter was chosen because two of America’s greatest leaders—Washington and Lincoln—were born during the month. And if the movement had succeeded, its advocates would point out that Ronald Reagan, popularly known as one of the greatest American presidents of all times, was also born in February.
For Americans who prefer their history lily white, February was beautiful. During the 1950s and 1960s, our nation’s history was celebrated across the land, in hamlets, towns, and smaller cities. Led by women, the movement focused on patriotism: Washington and Lincoln, the glorious American Revolution, the triumph over sectionalism, and America’s preservation of freedom in Europe were the stuff of February. Businesses showered funds on America’s true history, and governors, including Nixon and Reagan, signed proclamations. America’s small newspapers were adorned their pages with the beaming, young faces of the winners of essay contests. American history lived through our youth.
In 1967 and 1968, the movement reached its height. Under the leadership of Phyllis Schlafly, the proponents of American History Month succeeded in getting Congress and President Lyndon Baines Johnson to issue an official proclamation. In 1968, in the midst of setbacks in Viet Nam, the New York Times reported that the President’s proclamation “noted that understanding the past can give the nation wisdom and courage to meet its present challenges.”
Then, as quickly as it came, American History Month waned, fading from view almost completely by the mid-1970s. Indeed, by 1976, when President Gerald R. Ford joined with the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History to pronounce February Black History Month, it appears that neither he nor they seemed aware that February was already American History Month.
How could America so easily forget? How had February gone from white to black? The transformation of history in February is a story of race and nation, of pride and patriotism, and of progress and American identity.
The popular effort to define February began in 1926. The protagonist was Carter G. Woodson. The son of slaves, Woodson took a doctorate from Harvard and dedicated his life to using history as a weapon. He combated the idea that blacks constituted an inferior race that had contributed nothing of worth to civilization. Well aware that quite a few black Americans also needed convincing, Woodson decided to popularize the scholarly findings being uncovered by his organization, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. He conceived of Negro History Week as a means of getting the word out to the public.
Woodson selected a week in February for the celebration. A practical man, he was well aware that black Americans were already celebrating September 12th and 14th, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’ respective birthdays. Republicans, black and white, had been celebrating Lincoln’s birthday since the Civil War, and the entire nation had begun to honor it as a holiday in 1909, the centennial of his birth. Not long after Douglass’ death in 1895, the black community began celebrating his life on the day he had chosen to mark his birth (for slavery had deprived him of the actual date). It began as an effort of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs to save Douglass’ home, Cedar Hill. By building on the existing history days, Woodson increased the likelihood that Negro History Week would be a success.
The week also reflected Woodson’s racial and national aspirations for America. Woodson believed in racial harmony and embraced America as his nation, laboring for the day when racial democracy would be realized. Revealingly, his history of black Americans was entitled, The Negro in Our History. In 1933, he would write, “We would not learn less of George Washington, ‘First in War, First in Peace and First in the Hearts of His Countrymen’; but we would learn something also of the three thousand Negro soldiers of the American Revolution who helped to make this ‘Father of our Country’ possible.” Woodson’s vision was inclusive, not divisive.
Built around two figures admired by African Americans, Negro history week spread like wildfire. Throughout the South and the North, African Americans expanded their celebrations, and segregated black schools wrote Woodson clamoring for material to teach the children. In the heart of the Depression, Woodson’s movement grew. Branches of the Association, as it became known, sprouted up around the country, and Negro History Week became a national celebration that drew the attention of white newspapers and politicians. As blacks moved North, proclamations from mayors and governors followed. Preachers became historians of sort, and white publishers discovered black authors. So successful was Negro History Week that Woodson began to complain about quality control and commercialization. In short, it was an American success story.
When he died in 1950, Woodson would become known as the Father of Negro History. In his vision, black history was American history, and the future would be one that recognized it as such. As whites joined the movement and asked for materials to teach white children, he could sometimes make too much of it. He used to speak of a day when Negro History Week would fade away. He never, however, thought that the collective experience of black Americans would become disaggregated—groups made and had histories. In high schools and colleges, special courses would exist as they did for other groups. And in daily life, the historian dreamt a historian’s dream–Negro history week would become Negro history year.
Two years after Woodson passed away, in a small hamlet in Kentucky, one of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) put herself forth as the mother of American History Month. Charged with heading a committee on Americanism, Mrs. William H. Noel promoted the idea of buttressing American patriotism by parlaying Washington and Lincoln’s birth month into a state-wide celebration. At the heart of the effort was the Cold War, and Governor Lawrence Wetherby embraced the project. In his proclamation, he wrote, “existing trends toward Communism and Socialism called for a return to fundamentals” and “knowledge of American history is the best counter-offensive to the various ‘isms’ seeking a foothold in our country.” American History Month, he believed, would result in children who entered into civic life as “Pro-Americans.”
In subsequent years, the Daughters of the American Revolution sponsored American History Month. With its national base and cadre of well-placed, patriotic mothers in virtually every locale, the DAR had no problem garnering proclamations and receiving support from local groups. Their identification with patriotism made them especially suited to promote history as a means of inoculating the public against foreign ideologies. Moreover, the Cold War itself, which placed America traditional and ideology against in competition with communism, had an appeal that attracted the support of many Americans.
In Phyllis Schlafly the movement had a figure whose star was just beginning to rise. In the heart of America’s most liberal decade, Schlafly mobilized support to have Congress and the President provide official recognition to February as American History Month. In November of 1966, she succeeded in getting Congress to adopt a measure for her movement. And in 1967, American History Month had a Presidential Proclamation.
Despite this–actually, because of all this, American History Month fizzled. The brand of American history promoted by the Daughters of the American Revolution was becoming increasingly passé. Postwar America no longer represented country led by people who traced their ancestry back to the Mayflower and the America Revolution. The vision of America as an Anglo-Saxon nation was being replaced by the view of America as a nation of immigrants. In 1952, during the same year the movement started, the Jewish scholar Oscar Handlin won the Pulitzer Prize for his work on immigration. American history, he wrote, is immigrant history. This was the view promoted by John F. Kennedy and in 1960 he would win the White House.
Worse still, before America began to see itself as a nation of immigrants, it already was a nation with millions of black citizens. Rather than building on Negro History Week and extending an olive branch to their fellow citizens who were celebrating the legacy of Lincoln, the Daughters of the American history attempted to co-opt the entire month and pretended that Frederick Douglass had never lived. Woodson had adopted a proven formula of promoting racial harmony by coupling the president with the great abolitionist and the DAR could not have missed it altogether. Negro History Week was often discussed in majority white papers across the nation.
Had the DAR desired to reach across the color line, it would have taken some effort. Not many African Americans would have forgotten how in 1939 the DAR had barred Marian Anderson, the famous opera singer, from performing in their Constitutional Hall. In fact, Eleanor Roosevelt, the stalwart champion of black equality, resigned from the DAR in protest of their racism. The DAR had baggage.
An outreach to blacks would have been imperative because the rising liberal establishment was hardly interested in promoting American history. In the 1950s and early 1960s, leading liberal intellectuals such as Richard Hofstadter associated Americanism with radical conservatism and anti-intellectualism. The large urban newspapers greeted the arrival of American History Month with great indifference, if not disdain. The New York Times mentioned the celebration only four times in its history—two of them brief mentions of the presidential proclamations. The Washington Post covered the movement as a women’s event, reporting on it in the women’s section of the paper. Large papers reported on American History Month, they never promoted it with special sections. Indeed, the liberal media was in full effect.
It virtually goes without saying that the anti-Americanism that accompanied the rise of sixties radicalism did nothing to extend the reach or life of the movement. The anti-Viet Nam War movement signaled a break with American history and a distrust of American institutions. Radical historians scoured the past looking to debunk proclaimed American ideals and celebrated all departures, however slight, from the mainstream capitalist creed. Even in its mildest form, the Black Power movement called into question the promise of American history and savaged the Founding Fathers as slaveholders and racists. Woodson’s beloved Lincoln was no longer a liberator—he was a white supremacist. The DAR and its figurehead, Phyllis Schlafly, now famous for opposing the Equal Rights Amendment, would become the symbol of anti-feminism, and it would take years before feminist historians could make peace with the mothers of the American revolution.
What is remarkable is that between 1952 and the mid-1960s, the American History Movement never spilled beyond the Daughters of the American Revolution. Successful movements never remain the monopoly of their promoters. Why didn’t Americans who liked the message and not the messenger establish their own vehicles for celebrating American History Month? If the DAR was too elitist (and it was!), why didn’t other patriotic groups such as the Knights of Columbus or even local Parent Teachers Associations take up the cause?
The American History movement was up against more than liberalism’s distrust of patriotism and the newcomers’ dislike of the old elite’s claim to the Founding Fathers. It was trying to promote history to segments of the American population that had never cared much for the past. Looking forward, not backwards, has been the way of white folks in the American story. For native and foreign born whites alike, the pursuit of wealth has often meant uprooting oneself from people and places and seeking new opportunities.
Besides the traditionalism of the founding WASPs, the grand exception to the anti-historical impulse among whites had been among Southerners. Long ago William Faulkner noted that the defeat in the Civil War engendered in the Southern youth a sense of history in a land generally devoid of the same. The historian Eugene Genovese has emphasized that the South’s love of history was not born of defeat, but was rather an outgrowth of its agrarian traditionalism. Thanks to the New Deal and the Cold War, progress was bulldozing the South digging up the roots of Southern history. The Civil Rights movement led to the resurrection of rebel symbols, but Confederate nationalism lay buried in dozens of battlefields being transformed into middle class havens. The struggle that made modern America was in the way of progress and that was not a safe place.
History appealed to black Americans precisely because it drove racial progress. Woodson had shown that the path through the future was through the past. Arthur A. Schomburg, his contemporary and fellow advocate of black history, put it best, “The American Negro must make his past in order to make his future.” History moved black people forward by showing the world what people of African descent had accomplished and the contributions that African Americans had made to the nation. It was in raising black self-esteem through examining the record and empowering one group of Americans to look at the other eye to eye. And it was a concept that had been understood by African Americans since their participation in World War I when they fought to free others and now looked to free themselves.
Not surprisingly, black history was part and parcel of the civil rights movement. It existed in the Freedom Schools in the South, and in the school boycotts in the North. Integrationists wanted Negro history in schools, so that black and white children would know the truth about blacks and their contributions to the nation. To be sure, black nationalists have ever made their case for separation by appeals to a litany of grievances, giving birth to one of the most vibrant debates about the American past. (To this day, slavery and Jim Crow live in black barbershops and beauty parlors.)
Given black history’s utility, African Americans never waited for Woodson’s Association to pave the way. To his credit, Woodson never tried to control the celebrations. He urged local communities to form committees and get on with the work. And so they did. By the time the Association named February Black History Month in 1976, it was largely a fait accompli. In places like Chicago, the House of Knowledge had begun celebrating “Negro” History Month as early as 1967. By 1969, “Black” History Month was being celebrated in many of the city’s public schools.
The white liberal establishment that ignored American History Month embraced the movement of the oppressed minority. Raising self-esteem and spreading sensitivity through black history was different from promoting unbridling and unblinking American nationalism. Big city newspapers that did nothing for American History Month ran special sections on black history.
Conservative America adopted Black History Month as well. Tending to their bottom lines, corporations commercialized black history. Firstly, they recognized that that history had a special appeal to black Americans—the ubiquitous celebrations told them so. Secondly, marketing surveys revealed that blacks were particularly brand loyal. As the incomes of blacks rose in the 1960s, corporations promoted black history. Black history was part and parcel of the cola wars between Pepsi and Coke. Among the first to develop promotional materials for the black consumer, Pepsi created spoken word albums during the early 1960s. By the late 1960s, Coke teamed with ASNLH to produce a Negro History Week Kit. In the mid-1970s, Budweiser, the King of Beers, celebrated black history by commissioning famous artists to salute African Kings.
Integration brought the movement into erstwhile white places. As black children entered predominately white primary and secondary schools, February became first Negro History Week and then Black History Month. It started before Black Power, but black militancy certainly did not hurt the cause. In higher education, Black Power ushered in Black History Month and Black Studies. In the workplace, black history entered as blacks became more than menials, and human relations specialists recognized its importance in workforce management. Black History Month again underwrote progress.
Increasingly we hear calls to end Black History Month. Black history, some black folks say, is American history and therefore should neither be segregated nor reduced to a month. Others would have American history be colorblind altogether. And some just think it’s horrible. (God, bless them, too.)
These groups mean well, but they know too little about American history. Woodson often looked askance at his creation, but understood that it was people driven. It is a popular movement with which leaders and corporations want to be identified. It thrived for fifty years without a presidential proclamation and would grow stronger were one denied. It’s that kind of creature. And who, even if they could, would really kill it? It’s the only American history compatible with our ideology of progress.