The history of Black History Month
February signifies the start of Black History Month, a time to celebrate the achievements by African Americans and their roles in U.S. history and culture.
Contrary to popular belief, Black History Month was not created by the government. Black History Month began in 1915 when historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the second African American to obtain a doctorate at Harvard, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH).
The organization was designed to research and promote achievements by Black Americans and other peoples of African descent. The name was later changed to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASAALF).
Woodson created “Negro History Week” which was a week designed to teach and equip K-12 Black educators on Black history so they could teach the history to their students. At the time, white supremacy was rampant and lies were told about Black history, including that their history began when European ‘explorers’ arrived in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In 1926, “Negro History Week” was established and fell on the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
Mayors of cities across the country began issuing yearly proclamations recognizing “Negro History Week” in the years to follow. In the late 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement combined with an increasing, evolving public awareness of Black identity. “Negro History Week” expanded to Negro History Month into what it is today: Black History Month.
Today, Black History Month has grown to be an opportunity for people outside of the Black community to learn more about African American history and the contributions of Black Americans to our nation.
Black history in the classroom
Dr. David Walton is an assistant professor of history and the director of the Global Black Studies program at WCU. He has devoted years of his life to studying Black history and uses his knowledge to teach students of WCU the truth.
“Some people will say, ‘we don’t need Black History Month because Black history is American history’ but that shows me, they don’t know Black history or American history,” Walton said.
Walton says that a big reason why we need Black History Month is because Black history is rarely taught in schools, even today. Every semester, Walton asks his classes to raise their hands if they had Black history in high school. Very few raise their hands each time.
Walton explained that students can’t know what they aren’t taught.
The fear of teaching this material in predominantly white schools is, as Walton describes it is, “some white heroes are going to look a lot less heroic.”
Take for example, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Both were slave owners yet in much of American history, they are portrayed as heroes.
In the view of some, the truth of Thomas Jefferson is interpreted as “unpatriotic history,” primarily based on how it makes some individuals feel. Walton has been described as “shaming” white students by teaching true history. Walton says the shame does not come from him and how he teaches the material. Rather, “the shame comes from when you realize these things happened and they’ve been withheld from you,” Walton said.
Black history at WCU
WCU has a rich, although recent history of African American achievement.
In 1957 Levern Hamlin Allen enrolled at WCU and became the first African American student at Western Carolina College. Allen went on to receive a degree in special education. In 2006 she received an honorary doctorate of humane letters. In 2019, WCU opened Allen Residence Hall named in her honor. Sadly, in December of 2021 Allen, the pioneer for all Black students at WCU passed away.
From 1965-1968, Henry Logan attended Western Carolina University. During this time, Logan became one of the most decorated student-athletes WCU has ever had. Logan became the first African American athlete at Western Carolina College and was the first African American basketball player to be recruited by and to play for a primarily white institution in the Southeastern region of the United States. Following his time at WCU, Logan entered the NBA draft and was selected in the fourth round by the Seattle SuperSonics.
In 1970, Gail Cureton became not only the first African American elected homecoming queen at Western but also the first chosen for such honor at any predominantly white, co-educational school in North Carolina.
Allen, Logan and Cureton helped pave the way for all African American students that followed them at WCU. They also showed the Western community something other than they had ever experienced, a diverse WCU was possible.
How to celebrate Black history (month) and culture
Although Black History Month only falls during February, the celebration and acknowledgment of Black history continues throughout the year.
Chance Holmes-Snowden, an aspiring photographer studying Film and Television Production, will have work displayed in Bardo’s Fine Art Museum until March 24 during the 55th annual juried undergraduate exhibition. His work includes a well-contrasted shot of Asha, president of Global Black Studies Club. For more information, visit www.westerncarolinian.com.
While many notable events are held each year on our campus and around the nation during Black History Month, the acquisition of knowledge shouldn’t stop there.
Walton believes the best way people can celebrate Black History Month, even those outside of the Black community, is to educate themselves. As students of WCU, you can conduct your own research through the Hunter Library’s website. You can also check out a book by Black authors on Black culture or history.
Walton encourages students to investigate what they are interested in and how African Americans have contributed to hundreds of industries such as music, entertainment, art, and entrepreneurship amongst others.
“Many would be surprised by what they find,” Walton said.
WCU’s Intercultural Affairs (ICA) is also a great place to start. Feel free to visit ICA, strike up a conversation and learn more about a culture outside of your own.