We welcome a guest post from Stephen G. Hall, author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. The civil rights and black power movements expanded popular awareness of the history and culture of African Americans. But, as Hall observes, African American authors, intellectuals, ministers, and abolitionists had been writing the history of the black experience since the 1800s. Hall charts the origins, meanings, methods, evolution, and maturation of African American historical writing from the period of the Early Republic to the twentieth century and provides a holistic portrait of African American history informed by developments within and outside the African American community.
In today’s post, Hall examines Black History Month as a community-building engagement with the past.
Malcolm X’s oft quoted statement, “History is well qualified to reward our research,” is an indisputable truism. Not only in the larger context of acquiring knowledge, but specifically as it relates to the black historical enterprise. Calls questioning the relevance of Black History Month or its connection to broader publics are often made based on a lack of understanding and failure to see the longer origins of this enterprise. Understanding its nineteenth-century origins and its communal intent sheds new light on its relevance. From Black History Month’s inception in the nineteenth century, black historical writers utilized history to challenge misrepresentations of the black past and chart out new understandings of racial possibility. More important, these historians—either autodidacts or trained in nontraditional ways—viewed knowledge as deeply connected to the practical pursuits of existence and the accentuation of humanity in the world.
From Jacob Oson’s “A Search for Truth; or, An Inquiry for the Origin of the African Nation” to Ann Plato’s Essays to William Still’s The Underground Railroad, nineteenth-century book writers connected their scholarly endeavors to unearthing a communal past. Oson accentuated Africa’s role as central to human history. Plato used the quiet dignity of her essays to highlight the role of black women in the immediate and larger communities of the period. Still presented the Underground Railroad as the living embodiment of a race’s communal struggle for dignity and recognition. He did so in a postbellum moment fraught with the politics of sectional reconciliation, which sought to eradicate the memory of a contested past.
Black historical writers and proponents continued this push in the postbellum period through the Negro History Movement, the construction of literary and historical societies, and the work of black sculptors. The work of school principal Edward Austin Johnson’s A School History of the Negro Race (1883) to Leila Amos Pendleton’s Narrative of the Negro ( 1912) ushered in an era of popular histories devoted to providing practical information about the black past in the form of textbooks designed for use at the elementary and college levels. Black engagements with the communal past also permeated the creative arts. Sculptors such as Edmonia Lewis and Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller crafted representations of blackness in sculpture designed to promote communal visions. Lewis’s John Brown (1864-65) and Robert Gould Shaw (1867-68—marble) and Forever Free (1867) are representative of this approach. Warrick’s Ethiopia (1914) and Ethiopia Awakening (1930) as well as Mary Turner (Silent Protest Against Mob Violence) (1919) resonated with the communal chords of history. Black historical and literary societies such as the American Negro Society, The Negro Society for Historical Research, and the Mu So Lit Club, to name a few, also engaged the communal past. These societies promoted the study of history as an outgrowth of the larger impulse for collecting and preserving the past. All of these efforts fueled Carter G. Woodson’s creation of the Association of the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) and the subsequent creation of Negro History Week in 1926.
Beyond Negro History Week, Woodson also established the Negro History Bulletin (NHB) in 1936. The NHB was an outlet for engaging teachers, students, and administrators in primary and secondary schools. It also appealed to the lay public. Mary McLeod Bethune, President of the ASNLH in the 1939’s and 1940’s, understood the importance of engaging black publics in the work of preserving the black past. The NHB featured a plethora of articles designed to make history accessible to larger publics.
After Woodson’s death, these communal visions continued in the modern museum movement. These museums drew on the need for public representation of black life borne of the civil rights and black arts movements. Some of these museums, which began in cities heavily populated by blacks, included the DuSable Museum of African American History (1961), the International Afro-American Museum in Detroit (1965), the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in Washington (1967) and the American Museum of Philadelphia (1976). Other community-inspired projects include The Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore (1983) and the National AfroAmerican Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio (1987). All of these museums used history and historical artifacts to dramatize the black past and present it to the community.
The twenty-first century is just as rich in African American history and communal engagement as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The establishment of the National African American Museum in Washington, DC (2003), which is slated for completion this year, and the use of the Internet—especially Twitter—to construct communal engagements represents the utilization of new forums to present information to black publics. Historians continue to lead the way. Dr. Marcia Chatelain’s #FergusonSyllabus and the work of Drs. Chad Williams, Kidada Williams, and Keisha Blain with the #CharlestonSyllabus continue a tradition of historical engagement spanning more than two centuries. All of these efforts suggest and demonstrate the continued importance of Black History Month as an inclusive and community-based engagement with the African American past.
Stephen G. Hall is History Program coordinator and assistant professor of history at Alcorn State University. He is author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. Follow him on Twitter @historianspeaks. See his previous guest posts, “Black History Month: Setting the Story Straight.” (2011) and “Black History Today” (2014).