African American History Month, also known as Black History Month, is dedicated to celebrating the influential role African Americans have played throughout U.S. history. The lasting contributions from great leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Carter Woodson, Barbara Jordan, and Maya Angelou continue to remind America that we can all be greater.
By the way, if you haven’t taken the chance to read up on the fascinating life of Dr. King, and his powerful Six Steps of Nonviolent Social Change, which are still applicable today, read our previous post on it here.
Despite a recent social media storm, when a black actress and Fox commentator sounded off about Black History Month, arguing that it further encourages segregation, we support its presence as a way to officially recognize members of the African American Community’s accomplishments from both past and present. We do not narrow our celebration of these achievements to one month only, but we do recommend taking advantage of the yearly calendar opportunity to education children, students, and ourselves about where we have been and where we need to continue to grow as a nation.
As part of this month, let’s not only celebrate past achievements and accomplishments, but remind ourselves to move in forward progress towards a vision of hope, success and equality for all.
African American History Month Beginnings:
Originally African American History Month was really just a week that was started by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1926. This week was called “Negro History Week” and was the second week in February. Dr. Carter G. Woodson took great consideration when he picked that week. He chose the second week in February because this week had the birthday of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. He was paying tribute to these two men because he felt they had been great leaders had a positive influence on African American history. “Negro History Week” did not become African American History Month until 1976 when President Gerald R. Ford recognized the entire month of February to be dedicated to what he stated was the often neglected accomplishments of African Americans.
There are too many wonderful achievements by historical and contemporary African Americans to recognize here, but we’ve highlighted some notable figures below, briefing their stories which are absolutely awe-inspiring apart from, and considering all of the challenges and discrimination they faced.
African American Outliers:
Madam C. J. Walker
- The first self-made woman to become a millionaire in America was Madam C. J. Walker.
- She made her fortune by developing a line of beauty and hair care products for black women. She was the first child in her family born into freedom after the emancipation proclamation; she was an orphan by the age of 7; she was married by 14, and after she became a mother to her daughter Lelia at 17, her husband died when she was 20. She only made a dollar a day working in her brothers’ barber shop, but she managed to pay for her daughter’s education. Despite her challenges, this position introduced her to hair care, and she eventually secured a position working for Annie Malone, an African American hair care entrepreneur, whose concepts she adapted for her own products. Although her hair care formula was key, her marketing strategy is what set her apart and earned her success as she traveled nationwide to expand her business, start the Leila College where she trained “hair culturists” who were trained in technique and sales. Her business became worldwide, reaching Jamaica, Haiti, Panama, Cuba, and Costa Rica.
- She became a political and social justice figure, committed to philanthropy, African American women’s causes, and equality.
- “Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.” – Madam C. J. Walker
George Washington Carver
- Inventor George Washington Carver was able to create almost 300 derivative products from just peanuts alone! A few of these products were milk, flour, plastics, wood stains and cosmetics.
- He was born into slavery, kidnapped just a week after his birth with his sister and mother, and was located by himself and returned to the Carver plantation. After the end of slavery, Moses and Susan Carver kept him and his brother who were children at the time, to personally raise and educate them.
- Although he was accepted into Highland College in Kansas as a young adult, he was eventually denied admittance because of his race. He had to continue to enrich and deepen his studies, originally started by Susan, and become self-taught in his biological and geological studies.
- His interests in science and art intersected when he started drawing botanical samples. He eventually was accepted into Simpson College in Iowa, where he studied art and music and went on to become the first black student admitted to Iowa State, where he received his Bachelor of Science.
- He went to graduate school for plant pathology and after developing a reputation as a brilliant botanist, was hired on with preferential salary and living provisions at the Tuskegee Institute to run the school’s agricultural department.
- His program became renowned for developments in cash crop methods and a mobile classroom brought to local farmers.
- Carver came to fame nationally for his groundbreaking research on plant biology and new uses for crops such as peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans, and pecans. He invented hundreds of products including plastics, paints, dyes, and even a kind of gasoline
- Carver because an advisor to President Theodore Roosevelt on agricultural matters
“Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom” – George Washington Carver
More Incredible Outliers:
- Jack Johnson
- In 1908, Jack Johnson was the first African American to be crowned the World Heavyweight Champion. He held this boxing title until 1915.
- “An individual action, multiplied by millions, creates global change.”” – Jack Johnson
- Thurgood Marshall
- President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the first African American, Thurgood Marshall, to the United States Supreme court. Thurgood Marshall held a seat in the Supreme Court from 1967 to 1991.
- “In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.” – Thurgood Marshall
- Hattie McDaniel
- The first African-American performer to win an Academy Award was Hattie McDaniel. She won this highest honor for her role as a slave in Gone With the Wind in 1940.
- “The entire race is usually judged by the actions of one man or woman.” – Hattie McDaniel
- Dr. Mae Jemison
- On an eight day mission in 1992 for a bone cell experiment, Dr. Mae Jemison became the first African American woman to go into space.
- “What we find is that if you have a goal that is very, very far out, and you approach it in little steps, you start to get there faster. Your mind opens up to the possibilities.” – Mae Jemison
- Jackie Robinson
- Jackie Robinson was the first African American player to sign a Major League Baseball contract. This was not his only feat; he also broke the color barrier outside of his athletic abilities also was the first black television analyst in MLB, and the first black vice president of a major American corporation.
- “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” – Jackie Robinson
Watch this awesome video put together from the History Channel, called Origins of Black History Month.