Black History Month began in 1926 when historian Carter G. Woodson urged fraternity brothers at Omega Psi Phi to help promote a “Negro History Week.” Woodson, a Harvard-trained historian, believed that promoting the achievements of black people would help to combat prejudice and build a sense of pride among his people.
He chose the second week of February because it marked the birthdays of the two Americans, Abraham Lincoln (1809) and Frederick Douglass (1817), who perhaps most greatly influenced the lives and social conditions of African Americans. In 1976, fifty years after the first celebration, the Black History Week became the first Black History Month.
This month, schools across the country focus on the accomplishments of black Americans and the progress made to improve conditions for all people, regardless of their race. It is a unique yearly opportunity to share with your students the accomplishments of many unsung (and some now-acknowledged) American heroes. Here are a few examples of teachers who we now remember for their struggles and contributions.
Mary Jane McLeod Bethune (1875–1955) was an American educator and civil rights leader who started a school for black students in Daytona Beach, Fla., that eventually became Bethune-Cookman University. She also was an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. With the help of benefactors, Bethune attended college hoping to become a missionary in Africa. When that did not materialize, she started a school. It grew and merged with an institute for African-American boys, eventually becoming the Bethune-Cookman School where she served as president from 1923–1942 and 1946–1947.
Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) was born a slave, though his father was white. After the Civil War, he worked in salt furnaces and coal mines in Malden, W. Va., and attended school part time, until he was able to enter the Hampton Institute where he later became an instructor. In 1881 he was chosen to organize a normal and industrial school for African Americans at Tuskegee, Ala. Under his direction, Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) became one of the leading African-American educational institutions in America.
Helen Jenkins Davis was the first black educator hired by the Columbus Public Schools (1918). She taught for the district for 34 years. Davis, the daughter of a freed slave from Kentucky, resisted discrimination many times and served to promote human rights and equality until her death in 1987 at the age of 92. CEA gives an annual award in her name, commemorating her contribution to the education of Columbus students and to future career opportunities for black teachers.