We welcome a guest blog 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 Stephen 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 20th century and provides a holistic portrait of African American history informed by developments within and outside the African American community.
With Black History Month soon reaching its end, Hall explores how African Americans shaped the American experience and changed the course of the nation’s history.
Black History Month is not only a time to reflect on the past, but also a moment to engage the present and future. Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Month, understood what I term the dual purpose of black history. First, Black history offers a window to the past through the showcasing of the contributions of African Americans to the national story. Second, and more important, it also holds a mirror to our current understanding of who and what we are as Americans.
The past year, 2013, marked important milestones in the national understanding of race, class, and gender. These important anniversaries highlight the centrality of African American history to the national experience.
The commemoration of the 150th anniversaries of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Battle of Gettysburg highlight the centrality of African Americans to national life. The Civil War, an unprecedented conflict fought on American soil costing more than one million lives, featured a national baptism by fire—and from the ashes, a new beginning. Gettysburg marked a reversal of Southern fortunes in the war, with the tide quickly turning in favor of the North. It also demonstrates the power of people to change their realities and to create the conditions of their reality.
Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, primarily designed to preserve the Union, unintentionally ushered in a reconfiguration of Southern life and proved the death knell for slavery largely due to the actions of the enslaved, who enacted their own freedom by running to Union lines. These events incorporated more than four million African Americans into the body politic and changed the course of the nation.
Not unlike the sesquicentennial celebrations of seminal events during the nineteenth century, the 50th anniversaries of the March on Washington, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy represent critical moments in the twentieth century. African Americans figure prominently in these events.
The events that we commemorate—whether edifying or deeply shocking—stirred the conscience of the nation, moving us closer to achieving democratic ideals. We recall the images of Dr. King and 250,000 Americans of different races, colors, and creeds marching on Washington to achieve a singular goal—democratic inclusion for all the nation’s citizens. The march lifted the national spirit, ushered in Freedom Summer in 1964, the subsequent passage of the Civil Rights act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church highlighted the depravity of the opponents of civil rights and the lengths they were prepared to go to achieve their morally bankrupt ends. Kennedy’s assassination rocked the nation and led to the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose War on Poverty ignited a debate over the role of government in American life. It also, building on the work of the Kennedy administration, opened the doors of opportunity wider for African Americans with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.
At critical junctures in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, African American history intersected with the national story and altered the American landscape. Whether the Emancipation Proclamation or the March on Washington, black history merges and flows into the wider ocean of the American experience. All of these events, in one way or another, highlight the central role played by African Americans in the national life.
Black History Month, then, is not simply the celebration of the black past, but it is an acknowledgement of how the African American experience impacts the national life and provides important lessons for understanding the depth and complexity of the American experience.
Stephen G. Hall is assistant professor of history at Alcorn State University. His book A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America is available now.