It began in 1915, half a century after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States. That September, historian Carter G. Woodson and a pastor, Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). Their intention was to research and promote achievements by Black Americans and other people of African descent. The group sponsored a national Negro History Week in 1926, choosing the second week in February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. By the late 1960s, fueled in part by the Civil Rights Movement, the week had become a month.
Since 1976, the year I graduated high school, the Bicentennial year, every U. S. president has officially designated the month of February as National African American History Month. ThenPresident Gerald R. Ford called upon the public to “seize upon the opportunity to honor the toooften neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Other countries around the world, including Canada and the United Kingdom, take this month to honor the extraordinary contributions that people from the African diaspora have made to world history.
At Middle Church, we will seize the opportunity to honor the accomplishments of African Americans in the month of February. We will because we know it is important to rehearse the stories, to retell the stories, to learn new stories.
Did you know that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded on February 12, 1909, the centennial anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln? Did you know that Rosa Parks was the second Black woman to stay on the bus, to refuse to give up her seat? That Claudette Colvin was arrested on March 2, 1955, nine months before Ms. Parks, for refusing to give up her seat? That her testimony in a case called Broder v. Gayle helped lead a threejudge panel on June 13, 1956 to determine that the segregation laws for buses in Alabama were unconstitutional and that the U. S. Supreme Court held up their ruling in December of 1956?
We don’t know her story, because it was not publicized. She was a teenager—17 years old and reportedly carrying a married man’s baby in her womb. Some thought her an inappropriate symbol of the Civil Rights Movement. Ms. Colvin once said, “Young people think Rosa Parks just sat down on a bus and ended segregation, but that wasn’t the case at all.”
Did you know that when Trayvon Benjamin Martin was killed on February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida, he was only 17 years old? If Ms. Colvin’s life was pivotal in the movement for African American Civil Rights, then Trayvon’s tragic, much-too-young death was pivotal in the movement for Black Lives. Jonathan Capehart wrote in a Washington Post article in February 2015, “If the grand jury decisions to not indict the police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner gave birth to the ‘black lives matter’ movement, then it was conceived in the early evening of Feb. 26, 2012, in Sanford, Fla.”
We will commemorate African American History Month, and reflect on the contributions of Black people, and the value of Black lives. Why? Because African American History is American History. Let’s read, rehearse and remember.