In honor of Black History Month, we spoke with Patricia Gloster-Coates, chair of the history department at Pace University, about the month’s origins and its significance today.
What year did Black History Month begin?
It was officially incorporated in 1976, but it was Carter G. Woodson, a historian who started the Journal of Negro History in 1916 who, 10 years later, came up with the idea of celebrating Negro History Week on the Sunday closest to Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’ birthdays.
What was the goal of the celebration?
Initially, it was meant to bring attention to the cultural accomplishments African Americans had contributed to American history. Woodson thought it would be good to have a time-honored, fixed date when people would find out as much about African American history as possible.
Why is this so important?
There remains the need for special recognition, pride and a formalized occasion where people can say ‘yes this is our history.’ It’s important for there to be a fixed time when people can get together, reminisce and share facts and history.
How has the significance of Black History Month changed over time?
In my opinion, the films, the books, the speakers surrounding Black History Month are much more sophisticated today. I think we’ve become more intense about it. I’m stunned by the brilliance I’m seeing in our culture, too. For example, the movie “12 Years a Slave” — there’s more to work with in terms of Black pride. In a way, indirectly, since President [Barack] Obama became president, there have been an overwhelming number of African Americans and people of color put on network TV on a regular basis, which shows the African American influence on our overall culture.