Every February, our country honors Black History Month, an opportunity to celebrate the achievements and contributions of Black Americans, past and present, as well as to reflect on how racism and inequality persist today and the role we each play in addressing it. While Black History Month is commemorated nationally through everything from film festivals to book lists to media spotlights, the heart of Black History Month remains where it began: in our schools.
This Black History Month, we find ourselves amid heightened battles in our education system over which parts of history students should learn. Educators across the country are subject to fines, physical threats and termination for teaching about the challenges diverse communities face in America today, including the ongoing impact of racism and inequality . Teachers in some states are even facing backlash just for honoring Black History Month in their classrooms.
To build a society where all people are valued and treated with dignity, we must enable students to learn the true history of our country, both so they can take pride in the progress we have made and also so they can understand the work that remains for us to achieve our highest ideals of justice and inclusion for all. As we navigate current threats to comprehensive and accurate education, I invite you to explore how the origins of Black History Month compel us ensure students can learn from our past as they seek to shape our future.
The Origins of Black History Month
Dr. Carter G. Woodson (Source: NPGallery)
The observance of Black History Month started after Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard-trained historian and scholar, was troubled by how the education system presented American history, including the erasure of accomplishments of Black people. Books largely ignored the existence of Black people and if they were mentioned, the images were negative and rooted in racist stereotypes. Meanwhile, Black students did not know much about their history and often viewed themselves in a negative light, often as individuals who had very little to offer to society.
Dr. Woodson wanted to fix this. In 1926, he launched a celebration that encouraged public education to learn Black history during a designated week in February. Most of the learning took place in segregated Black classrooms, and Americans continued to have limited knowledge about Black experiences and the contributions Black people made throughout history.
Following the momentum of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the weeklong celebration eventually expanded to Black History Month. The holiday was recognized on the federal level in 1976 and has continued to gain observance nationwide.
Continuing Dr. Woodson’s Legacy
While Dr. Woodson’s efforts to shift our nation’s approach to Black history continue to impact school curricula and benefit our students, the disparities in our education system that existed in his time continue today. Since January 2021, 36 states have introduced bills or taken other steps to restrict how educators teach about our nation’s history, including the legacy of American slavery and the roles Black people have played throughout our country and our world’s history.
At Schusterman Family Philanthropies, we believe all students should have access to a high-quality, culturally relevant education that enables them to learn an accurate and inclusive version of our nation’s history. Among many aspects, a culturally relevant education includes:
- Ensuring students understand the contributions and struggles of different groups of people and communities.
- Updating instructional materials to feature diverse peoples, places and perspectives.
- Training teachers and administrators to have the skills to ensure all students feel valued and accepted and can reach their full potential.
- Allowing students to be proud of our country’s progress while recognizing the work we still need to do to live up to our highest ideals of liberty, justice and equality for all.
Supporting a culturally relevant education begins by supporting teachers. Today, teachers who desire to implement more inclusive curricula and instructional techniques may lack the resources and tools to deliver culturally inclusive lessons and materials. For teachers to bring a culturally relevant education to their classrooms, they need access to excellent instructional materials that support them in delivering a challenging and affirming educational experience for students of all races, genders and socioeconomic backgrounds.
We are proud to invest in organizations working with teachers to expand culturally relevant education in schools. For example, UnBoundEd designs learning for educators that exemplifies equitable instruction so that students experience grade-level, engaging, affirming and meaningful instruction. Open Up Resources (OUR) fosters equal access to excellent materials through crafting top-rated curricula that are openly accessible to districts and schools. Village of Wisdom tackles racial injustice in classrooms by developing tools and resources that help parents, teachers and students create ideal learning environments for Black and Brown learners.
These are just a few of the amazing organizations helping to build a diverse and skilled educator workforce, shape welcoming and engaging classroom environments and advance equitable policies that advocate for what students and teachers need.
The Bottom Line
Our country has a rich and complex history, yet only part of the story is taught. Black Americans deserve to have their history, contributions and achievements recognized as a vital part of our nation’s story, not just in February but all year round.
By supporting teachers in delivering a culturally relevant education that reflects the challenges and diverse voices of American history, we can do our part to affirm students of all backgrounds and prepare them to engage critically with the world around them as empowered agents for change.
Heather Harding is a Senior Director of Education Grantmaking at Schusterman Family Philanthropies.