Posted by: Daniel Cisek, Deputy Press Attaché
With February drawing to a close, I would like to reflect on its significance for Americans as Black History Month, a time when we highlight the accomplishments and struggles of African-Americans, who make up 13% of the U.S. population. African-American history began with a long period of involuntary servitude, followed by struggle, progress, and – two years ago – the historic election of the first African-American President Barack Obama in 2008.
Carter G. Woodson, a noted historian and son of former slaves, conceived of the idea of a Black History Week in 1926, choosing February to coincide with the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. This commemoration was later expanded to the whole month.
African Americans were first brought to the English colonies as slaves in the early 1600s. The American
Revolution (1776-1783) failed to end the practice, because southerners believed that their cotton-based economy could not survive without slaves. Despite the revolution’s radical call for the equality of all men, the southern states still held African Americans as property for most of the next century until the American Civil War (1861-1865). Black leaders such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas pushed for an end to the evil institution that they had personally experienced, but the war to preserve the Union raged for two years before President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 transformed the war into a crusade against slavery.
The end of slavery did not bring full equality. In the southern states, segregation and violent groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which intimidated and murdered African Americans to keep them from asserting their rights. Discrimination and social exclusion were also common in the north. An infamous Supreme Court decision in 1896 (Plessy vs. Ferguson) upheld the constitutionality of the supposedly “separate but equal” segregation system. During this time, prominent African American leaders and thinkers such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois strived for equal rights for their community.
During both world wars, many African-Americans served in the military, which was finally desegregated in 1947. In the same year, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in major league baseball. In the 1950s, the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education outlawed segregation in schools, a victory for the modern civil rights movement.