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Published:February 17th, 2009 10:11 EST
Why do we celebrate Black History Month in February?

Why do we celebrate Black History Month in February?

By George Curry (Former Featured Editor)

The clamor to get rid of Black History Month ignores a crucial yet often overlooked fact: Congress has authorized and every president - Democrat and Republican - signs an executive order each year honoring the contributions of not only African-Americans, but Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and women.
February is Black History Month, March has been designated Women`s History Month, May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Hispanic Heritage Month begins on September 15 and November is observed as American Indian Heritage Month.

Therefore, to single out the elimination of Black History Month while continuing the other observations is ludicrous. To recommend that all be eliminated is equally foolish.  As the nation grows increasingly diverse - by the year 2040, Whites will become a minority in the U.S. - I offer a different proposal. Instead of eliminating designated national observations such as Black History Month, let`s make an effort to learn more about the groups being celebrated at different times throughout the year.

The sad truth is that many groups do not have a sufficient knowledge of their own history and even less information about what other groups have endured and accomplished. This is a good time to change that. A knowledge and appreciation for other cultures might foster better intergroup relationships.

Why do we celebrate Black History Month in February?

No, it`s not because it`s the shortest month of the year. Black history was initially observed the second week in February. Carter G. Woodson, the founder of what was then called Negro History Week, first chose the week in 1926 because it marked the birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass (February 14, 1818) and Abraham Lincoln, the signer of the Emancipation Proclamation (February 12, 1809).

It was natural to expand the second week in February to the month that also contained the birthday of scholar and civil rights icon W.B. B. DuBois (February 23, 1868), marked the passage of the 15th Amendment granting Blacks the right to vote (February 3, 1870), represented the day that the first Black U.S. Senator, Hiram R. Revels of Mississippi, took his oath of office (February 25, 1870) and the day the NAACP was founded (February 12, 1909). Additionally, the Greensboro, N.C. sit-in movement began February 1, 1960 and Malcolm X was slain February 21, 1965.

Women`s History Month also began as a week-long celebration. It was first observed in 1978 by Sonoma County, California. The second week in March was selected to include the March 8 observance of International Women`s Day. In 1981, Representative Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah co-sponsored a joint Congressional resolution proclaiming national Women`s History Week. In 1987, the week was expanded to a month.

In June 1977, Representatives Frank Horton of New York and Norman Y. Mineta of California introduced a House resolution that called on the president to designate the first 10 days of May as Asian Pacific Heritage Week. The following month, a similar bill was introduced in the Senate by Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga. On October 5, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the joint resolution for the annual celebration. In May 1990, it was expanded into a month. May was chosen to commemorate the official arrival of Japanese immigrants on May 7, 1843 and the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. Chinese immigrants laid the majority of the tracks.

Hispanic Heritage Month begins on September 15, the anniversary of independence for five Latin American countries - Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. They all declared their independence in 1821. In addition, Mexico celebrates its independence on September 16 and Chile on September 18.

October 12, observed as Columbus Day or Dia de la Razza, also falls within the 30-day period. The celebration began in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon B. Johnson and expanded in 1988 by President Ronald Reagan to cover September 15 to October 15. Many Americans mistake Cinco de Mayo with Mexican Independence Day. The former, observed May 5, celebrates Mexico`s victory over the French Empire at the Battle of Puebla, about 100 miles east of Mexico City, in 1862.

The first American Indian Day was declared on the second Saturday in May 1916 by the governor of New York. Several states set aside the fourth Friday in September to celebrate the cultures and contributions of Native Americans. Several other states have designated Columbus Day as Native American Day.  

Though November is now designated as American Indian Heritage Month, earlier efforts to honor the contributions of Native Americans have been inconsistent. In 1986, Congress requested that the president proclaim the week of November 23-30 as American Indian Week. In 1988, Congress changed the designation to National American Indian Heritage Week and moved the date of the observance to September 23-30 because "the last week of September begins the harvest season in the United States." In 1989, Congress switched the week to December 3-9. In 1990, Congress requested the president to issue a proclamation designating the month of November 1990 as National American Indian Heritage Month. Congress said it selected November because it concludes the traditional harvest season and is a time of thanksgiving and celebration of American Indians.

As can be seen above, we know so little about one another. Instead of eliminating celebrations such as Black History Month, we should broaden the celebrations so that we`ll know more about ourselves and one another.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site,