As I celebrate my first Black History Month as superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, I have thought about the underlying evolution and purpose of this traditional part of our school calendar. While we certainly celebrate those African Americans who shaped our culture, our politics, and our way of life, do we do enough to delve into our personal heritage or our own possible impacts on the history to come?
The tradition of Black History Month boasts of a nearly century-long history, stretching back to Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Known as the “Father of Black History,” Dr. Woodson created Negro History Week in 1926 to mark a moment when African Americans could reflect and honor their own heritage and celebrate African-American contributions to our country.
Dr. Woodson chose the second week of February for this special week because the week included the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809) and Frederick Douglass (assumed to be February 14, 1895).
Forty years later, during the Civil Rights movement, the week became a month, and President Gerald Ford became the first president to officially issue a message recognizing Black History Month. The celebration has become a standard for classrooms around the nation ever since.
We are fortunate in Atlanta in that we do not have to look too far for inspiration. Atlanta has a rightful claim as the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement, so we can talk about Kings and Youngs and Lewises. In fact, many of our own schools were named in honor of some of the most distinguished African-American men and women, which also include Dr. Woodson and Mr. Douglass!
But I think Dr. Woodson meant for his challenge of nearly a century ago to breathe more life into the effort than to simply call the roll of the usual men and women of distinction. I think he wanted all of us to go beyond celebrating the past and honoring our heritage.
He wanted us to realize that all of us are part of Black History. While we must appreciate our heritage and understand the past, we must use those lessons and examples to impress our own impact upon the future of our schools, our nation, and the world.
Please consider some recent words from Tauheedah Baker-Jones, the district’s first Chief Equity and Social Justice Officer. In her equity blog last week, she takes us through an especially intriguing part of her own family history to reveal how her ancestors, their Georgia roots, and her family’s generational fight for equity has informed her own work today in Atlanta Public Schools. The creation of a new division focused on equity promises to be history in the making for our district.
As for my own history, it is humbling for me to reflect on the many trailblazers, historians, civil rights leaders, and cultural architects who have shaped my journey and the black female leader that I am. My journey has been shaped by the fact that I am a granddaughter of both a sharecropper and business owner. I forever celebrate that I am a daughter of a pastor and civil servant.
This same history, my history, is crafted and impacted by a personal journey steeped in education and faith, shaped by the influences of attending Spelman College, here in Atlanta, often rated as one of the country’s top Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
In knowing my history, I know that strong African-American men and women – whether they be Kings and Woodsons of our past or Obamas or Harrises of our present – help give me the strength and assurance to tackle such challenges as achievement gaps, equity, or learning, leading, and serving others during a pandemic.
When I speak to our young scholars, I want them to know that they are the architects of history as well. My challenge – and I think Dr. Woodson’s challenge as well – is for us to consider Black History as everyone’s history. It’s my history, your history, our history.