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Randal Maurice Jelks: Black History Month is relevant to all Americans

[Randal Maurice Jelks is a Rockefeller Foundation fellow and associate professor of history at Calvin College in Michigan.]

I grew up at a time when Black History Month was called Negro History Week.

This was in the days when African-American history was not ubiquitous. There were no major retailers then vying for black consumer dollars with ready-made Black History Month advertisements as there are today, with the exception of, perhaps, in Ebony and Jet magazines.

In my New Orleans schools, most of my teachers had been educated in historically black schools and colleges and they, too, had been taught lessons during Negro History Week. If you were Southern and black, or Northern in a school led by mostly black teachers, you learned of black history through the lesson plans from the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, which sponsored Negro History Week. If you weren't privileged to get this instruction at school then you might have gotten it in your local church. This was the very genius of Carter G. Woodson, the Harvard-trained entrepreneurial historian who bypassed the then all-white academic establishment to work with black teachers to tell an alternative history of the United States, a history filled with black heroines and heroes.

Woodson, of course, thought that people of African descent mattered more than just to the making of the United States, but also to the history of the entire Americas. He and his associates strategically placed Negro History Week between the birthdays of two of the country's most hallowed leaders -- George Washington, the slave-owning president who emancipated his slaves upon his death and Abraham Lincoln, the president forced to end slavery by cataclysmic horrors of the American Civil War.

Academic historians have become a bit jaded about telling the story of great men and women to their students, but Woodson was not. He knew that the history was more than about heroic individuals. He told that story in his many books and articles published in the Journal of Negro History, which he founded in 1915.

However, in the Negro History Week curriculum, he and his legion of teachers gave students like myself inspiration and heroes. They used history to tell those of us who were in the main from families that were the working-class and the working-poor that we could be heroes, too. Our heroes like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois and Dr. Charles Drew were historical actors. Through force of personality and courage, they made a difference. And we were called on by our teachers to imitate our heroes....
Read entire article at Sun-Sentinel