Thursday marked the start of the celebration of Black History Month, but should it have? Critics long have argued that relegating the focus of black Americans’ contributions to just one month out of the year stunts the national conversation on improving race relations.
But, as the Chair of MU’s Black Studies Department Stephanie Shonekan puts it, “Until we no longer have race as a central issue in American culture, we have to keep doing this to educate people, to offer people a chance to rethink their preconceptions.”
Those efforts are in full effect on mid-Missouri’s campuses, including a series of events at MU in Columbia and Lincoln University, a historically black university in Jefferson City.
Events at MU
Professor and musician Tammy Kernodle kicked off Black History Month at MU Thursday evening in Stotler Lounge in Memorial Student Union with “She Sang for Freedom,” a musical that journeys through the history of the black experience, from slavery to the Black Power movement. Other events scheduled on campus include public lectures on black history and culture, free HIV/AIDS education and testing, and documentary screenings.
At MU, white students make up more than 75 percent of the student population, according to 2017 enrollment figures. About 6 percent of MU students are black. But as Shonekan said, “Black history is American history.” She emphasized the important lessons students of all races can learn from these events and studying the black experience.
“I think it gives them a chance to learn their own history. There is no black without white. Race is a social construct. We’re all involved in this history,” Shonekan said.
Events in the City of Columbia
The City of Columbia is also hosting several events throughout the month, including a screening of the film "Selma" on February 7 at 7 p.m. at the Armory Sports Center.
Events at Lincoln
Thirty miles south, at Lincoln University, the picture of the student body is a sharp contrast. Forty-three percent of the student body identifies as black and 44 percent as white, according to 2016 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Rolundus Rice, Lincoln’s chief diversity officer, graduate studies dean and professor of African-American history, said student demand for Black History Month events was so great he created and chaired a Black History Month committee this year.
“We have an event almost every day,” Rice said.
A special screening and discussion of “Tell Them We are Rising,” a documentary on the history of America’s black colleges, set to take place Friday, is one of the highlights. Other events at Lincoln include lectures, exhibitions and documentaries focusing on the image of black men, community policing, racial wealth gaps and other topics.
History of Black History Month
For Lincoln students especially, Black History Month is closely tied to the school’s legacy. An early proponent of studying black history, professor Lorenzo Johnston Greene, taught history there for more than four decades.
Before coming to Lincoln in the early 1930s, Greene worked as a research assistant for Carter G. Woodson, who is remembered as the “father of black history.”
Woodson, whose parents were born into slavery, was one of the first black students to earn a doctorate in history from Harvard University. During his schooling in the early 20th century, a period marked by legal segregation and unchecked racial violence — including in Missouri — Woodson noticed how the story of black Americans remained all but absent in the accepted historical narrative.
In 1915, Woodson partnered with Jesse Moorland, an educator, minister and activist from Ohio, to found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now known as the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History.
In 1926, Woodson and his colleagues officially designated the second week in February, in line with former slave and abolitionist writer Frederick Douglass’ birthday, as “Negro History Week.”
Beginning in 1928, Greene, a graduate of Columbia University, traveled throughout the South raising money to promote black history studies.
In 1933, Greene began teaching history at Lincoln University and published several definitive works on African-American history before his death in 1988.
According to Rice, both Woodson and Greene “believed that black history was a vital medium of social reform and cross-cultural understanding within American society. They demonstrated that if people can be educated, if they know about the other, that reduces the fear of the unknown.”
“If Carter G. Woodson is the ‘father’ (of black history), Greene is the son,” said Rice, who noted Greene’s lasting imprint on Lincoln.
In 1976, “Negro History Week” officially became “Black History Month.”
The future of Black History Month
Since, public schools across the nation have used the month of February to celebrate the contributions of African-Americans. But as Rice noted, integrating the study of black history into the standard curriculum could be the key to further improving racial understanding.
“Students see that something is tragic here in 2018,” Rice said, referring to the state of race relations. “I think if we had an environment where we taught black history all year around, it would create an understanding and an appreciation of something (students) might not be aware of.”
Rice has experienced this first-hand; before joining the faculty at Lincoln, he taught at Talladega College, an HBCU in Alabama, where students are required to take an African-American history course to graduate. He hopes to one day see a similar mandate in Missouri.
At MU, Shonekan says there are efforts to infuse black history into the curricula, as black studies courses are regularly cross-referenced with other fields such as literature and history.
Shonekan added, however, that despite those efforts, Black History Month remains a necessity.
“Until we integrate all aspects of black experiences into our curriculum, across the board, across the campus,” Shonekan said, “We have to keep doing this.”
Supervising editor is Gary Garrison.