Wherever you may travel within the Heritage Area, you will encounter the strong presence of the African American experience; from the bondage of slavery to the enduring struggle for freedom and equality. February, designated as African American History Month (also known as Black History Month), provides us a chance to pause and commemorate the African American experience that is deeply interwoven with American history.
February honors, celebrates, and commemorates the vital history of African Americans. Dr. Carter G. Woodson, often referred to as “the father of back history”, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (known today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History or ASALH) in September 1915; fifty years after the passage of the 13th amendment. The organization is now celebrating their centennial year in 2015, celebrating “A Century of Black Life Culture & History.”
It was the establishment of this organization that inspired Woodson to create the idea of “Negro History Week.” The second week of February was designated, honoring the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass; two celebrated figures in the African American story. The first “Negro History Week” was celebrated in 1926, and by Woodson’s death in 1950 the commemoration had increased in participation and support.
The tumultuous era that followed Woodson’s death in 1950 challenged the idea of civil rights and left African Americans fighting for their freedom and basic rights. This brought more awareness for the African American story and the need to honor their struggle as well as celebrate their heritage. By 1976, the week-long commemoration became a month long, and was designated by President Ford, “In celebrating Black History Month…we can seize the opportunity to honor the too often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Every President since 1976 has designated February as Black History Month, providing the nation an opportunity to, as President Barack Obama stated in 2014, “…draw strength from the story of hard-won progress which not only defines the African-American experience, but also lies at the heart of our Nation as a whole.”
You can experience the story of African Americans throughout all 41 counties of the Heritage Area; from the more nationally recognized stories like Brown vs. Board of Education site in Topeka, KS, which ended legal racial segregation in public schools, to the lesser known parts of the story, including the Battle of Island Mound site in Bates County, MO marking the first time African American troops engaged in Civil War combat.
Find time this month to seek out African American history; whether it is through a special event commemorating African American History Month like those at the Alexander-Majors Barn and John Wornall House, including themed tours and special presentations, or a story you may not be so familiar with, like the Historic Ritchie House, a stop on the Underground Railroad.
More information on African American history in the Heritage Area can be found here.
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