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United States Marks 75th Year of Black History Celebration

African-American History Month was founded in our nation's capital in 1926 by famed Harvard-educated historian, Carter G. Woodson. At that time it was known as "Negro History Week."

That same year Howard University, founded in 1867 and named in honor of Civil War General Oliver Otis Howard, who was the head of the Freedmen's Bureau, acquired the leadership of its first black president, Mordecai Johnson.

Edward C. Smith is the director of the American Studies Program at Washington, D.C.'s American University.
Photograph courtesy of Edward C. Smith

It is difficult for many—in today's racially super-sensitive society—to accept the fact that for the first 59 years of its existence, Howard, proudly thought of as the Harvard of black higher education, was administered by whites. Such would be a virtual impossibility now. A few years ago one of my African-American students paid me a visit, which led us to having a rather unsettling conversation. He claimed that the federal government—as a blatant manifestation of its distaste for black history—chose the month of the year, February, with the fewest days for the celebration to be held. I immediately corrected him by saying that it is not a government celebration but a cultural celebration.

Furthermore, I explained that Woodson chose February because he felt that the three greatest Americans were born during that month. Woodson listed them in their order of importance: George Washington (without whom we would have had no new nation), Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln (who saved the nation that Washington helped to found).

Woodson placed Douglass before Lincoln because he felt that Douglass (who matured and moved beyond his youthful anti-Jefferson militancy and later adopted Thomas Jefferson as a father figure) made Lincoln a better man.

Lincoln would have agreed with Woodson's arrangement of names, having said before his death, "Mr. Douglass is the most meritorious man I have ever met."

Accolade for a Slave

Considering the stature of the men who served in Lincoln's cabinet and the reputations of so many of those military officers who he commanded in the field, such is quite an accolade for a runaway slave who taught himself how to read and write and became one of the foremost authors and orators of the 19th century.

Douglass's home, Cedar Hill, in the Anacostia section of Washington, D.C., is as close to the genteel and refined lifestyle of Monticello that any black American has ever achieved.

Lincoln's association with Douglass had a transformative impact on the president because in the sterling career of Frederick Douglass, he confronted the most absurd aspect of slavery, that being the reduction of people to beasts of burden which obviously translated into a wanton waste of human talent.

In other words, if there was one Frederick Douglass, think of all of the thousands upon thousands of other potential Douglasses who were prevented from fulfilling their destiny by becoming doctors, lawyers, teachers, inventors, etc., because they were held in bondage by individuals who unwisely considered themselves to be their social superiors.

General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to General Ulysses S. Grant on Palm Sunday. Lincoln saw powerful symbolism in that occurrence. He was assassinated on Good Friday and died the following day. Had he lived, he was going to be baptized into the congregation of the historical New York Avenue Presbyterian Church near the White House on Easter morning. Douglass would have been in attendance as the president's special guest.

Brotherhood Out of the Fire

A brotherhood had indeed been formed out of the fire and blood of Civil War and most importantly the disunited nation had been resurrected whole.

The same student that I mentioned earlier concluded his conversation with me by mentioning some disparaging comments regarding the color "black," such as in the negative associations like the bad luck of a black cat, the "darkness" of devil's food cake and so on.

I reminded him that a black tie affair represents the height of formality, and that the robes of the U.S. Supreme Court justices are black, and although many other positive associations could easily be made, the most important, for me at least, is that black is the universal color of the printed word; the paper is white.

Carter G. Woodson was very proud of his ancestry and never married and defended his decision not to do so because, as he said, "I need no other woman in my life; history is my wife."

He wanted blacks to set aside a period of time when they could reflect upon their past and joyfully celebrate their extraordinary accomplishments in spite of having to overcome so many enormous injustices and hardships through the generations in the country of their birth.

Hopefully, for all of those who will enjoy this year's 75th anniversary of the celebration, they will carry their well-deserved racial pride beyond February and celebrate their success throughout the year.

Professor Edward C. Smith is the director of the American Studies Program at Washington, D.C.'s American University and the director of the American University Civil War Institute. He is also a lecturer for the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society.

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