Year after year, Black History Month continues to serve as an observance and time of reflection on all that the African American community has contributed to the history of the United States.
According to Franklin Hairston, chairman of the West Virginia Black Heritage Festival’s Scholarship Committee, the impact of Black History Month can be traced back to one of his favorite quotes by Carter G. Woodson.
“Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished, they lose inspiration, which comes from the teaching of biology and history. If a race has no history, it has no tradition. I’ve always held on to that,” he said.
Hairston said Negro History Week was started in the 1920s by Woodson to recognize the contributions of the numerous African Americans who had been largely forgotten.
“He and his team had a little bulletin distributed in schools and churches,” Hairston said.
The bulletin highlighted significant contributions of African Americans, the history of the culture and where they were at the time.
Woodson, a native of West Virginia, has been coined as the father of Black History Month, and every president since Gerald Ford has officially recognized the month of February for the accomplishments of black Americans.
Hairston said it is important that young children, regardless of race, have an idea of “who we are as African Americans.”
“We want to make sure children have an identity. That we were more than slaves in this country, but even as slaves were productive members of society,” he said.
Hairston said the black community is more than what it appears in popular culture and through the media and that February offers an opportunity to reflect on those African Americans, many of whom are West Virginians, that have truly shaped the world today.
“I’m thinking of Booker T. Washington and Katherine Johnson,” he said.
Washington was an educator, author and civil rights leader from the last generation of black American leaders born into slavery who became the leading voice of the former slaves and their descendants. Johnson was a NASA employee whose orbital calculation mechanics were critical to the country’s first manned space flights.
Another West Virginian who deserves recognition, Hairston said, was Charles R. Patterson, a runaway slave from what is now Huntington. Patterson became the first African-American automobile manufacturer.
As time has gone on, the way Black History Month is celebrated has changed.