February is Black History Month, when America takes time to honor and remember great African-Americans, and their role in shaping America’s history.
Carter Woodson, an African-American historian, first established Black History Week in 1926 during the second week of February. He chose this specific week to honor African-Americans because President Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and Frederick Douglas, who escaped slavery and became an abolitionist and civil rights leader, were both born in February.
Black History Week was extended to a month-long celebration in 1976 by President Gerald Ford, who offered these thoughts on the observance: “We can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Since 1976, every American president has designated February as Black History Month, with a specific theme for each year’s celebration. For example, 2018’s theme was “African-Americans in Times of War.” 2018 marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, so this theme paid tribute to history’s courageous African-American servicemen and women, like WWII’s Tuskegee Airmen. The theme also explored how our African-American veterans fought bravely for our nation but still dealt with issues like prejudice and segregation in their everyday lives. The theme for 2019 is “Black Migrations,” which explores how African-Americans in the early 20th century moved from the southern United States to the north to find better economic opportunities. Many of our residents may find that their own families were part of this migration.
I hope that parents and teachers will encourage our young residents to learn something new during Black History Month. Our historical figures offer lessons that are still relevant today, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks’s bravery and leadership during the Civil Rights Movement. There are countless other African Americans who have left their mark on history and should be remembered today. In the political world, for example, we have Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress, and Middlesex County’s own Thomas Mundy Peterson, the first African American man to vote in a United States election after the passage of the 15th Amendment.
When we take time to observe events like Black History Month, we honor our fellow Americans. No matter who we are, we must always be open to listen to and learn from history, and to appreciate the value of America’s diverse population.
Ronald G. Rios is the director of the Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders. He writes the occasional column for Newspaper Media Group.