Awareness rising, but most agree Black History Month still needed

Black History Month in February is the time of year most Americans examine the contributions of blacks to American history and culture.

Before Black History Month, there was little opportunity to discuss that contribution, with school courses and textbook dominated by white and male "founding fathers."

But now there is debate about whether 28 days is sufficient – or necessary – for Americans to understand the role of blacks in the country's history.

Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman energized the debate when he told "60 Minutes" last month, "I don't want a Black History Month. Black history is American history."

There's no "white history month," the actor added.

Harvard Professor Carter G. Woodson organized the first annual Negro History Week in 1926. He chose the second week of February to mark the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, as well as the time most black people heard about the amendment banning slavery. By 1976, Negro History Week evolved into Black History Month.

Tracy Parsons of the Urban League of Champaign County thinks Freeman's idea has some merit.

"As we're learning so much, most of us would like to see it done throughout the year," he said.

But several local black leaders and historians say America is not ready to do without Black History Month.

Will Patterson, associate director of the University of Illinois African-American Studies Program, said most Americans know too little about the history of minorities such as Latinos, women and American Indians.

"It's still critically imperative for nationalities to have recognition or moments of observance," he said. "The month allows us to pay homage to African-Americans. Be it right or wrong, it's necessary until there is more equitable representation in textbooks and history classes.

"There are still quite a few people unfamiliar with the contributions African-Americans have made not only to America, but to the world."

Melodye Rosales of Champaign has written or illustrated more than 30 books, the majority of them having to do with black history.

She said her aunt, who grew up in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood in the 1930s, learned nothing about black history in school and asked a local librarian "Ma'am, did Negro people ever do anything that was good?"

She was answered with a heavy tome by Woodson that was among the first to chronicle black history.

Rosales said that in an ideal world she'd like to see black history taught year-round.

"I don't think you'll find many black people who would disagree that it is insulting to just dedicate 28 days worth of attention to a major part of what built this country in blood, sweat and many tears of slavery," she said.

But to do that, says her husband Giraldo, a Champaign City Council member and UI administrator, legislation would be required to change curriculums in English literature, history, social studies and the sciences in the "current mono-cultural (white) perspective."

He said that would require public institutions of higher education to make at least one black history course mandatory – as with foreign languages – as well as other changes.

Preston Williams was a history teacher before he became an Urbana schools administrator. He said centuries of neglect would have to be offset before Black History Month would become irrelevant.

"We're not there yet," he said.

History is written by the victors, Williams said, and black history has not been a part of traditional teaching.

"Really, it seems like there was an effort to make sure it was forgotten," he added. "It's interesting to look at (the battle of) Little Bighorn from different perspectives – that had been lacking in the teaching of history.

"But by celebrating and learning and acknowledging all of America's people, we become a greater nation."

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