Volume 94, Issue 73

Thursday, February 1, 2001


Black History Month - We've made great strides, but there is still a long way to go

Black History Month - We've made great strides, but there is still a long way to go

By Celeste Battero & Leena Kamat
Gazette Staff

February, usually thought of as the month of love, has an important and different meaning to many other people in North America. The month of February has been designated as Black History Month. But why was this month created? What is it all about?

According to Western history professor Margaret Kellow, Black History Month was set in February because of two significant birthdays – Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

Lincoln was the American president during the Civil War and implemented the Emancipation Act, which freed slaves. Douglass was a slave in the 19th century who escaped and went on to become a major contributor to the freedom movement, said Elise Harding-Davis, curator administrator at the North American Black History Museum in Windsor, Ontario. The month of February was proclaimed Black History Month by the provincial government in 1993.

Official celebration of black history began in 1926 in the United States by Carter G. Woodson, an early promoter of African-American history, said Jack Blocker, a history professor at Huron University College.

Setting aside a time to recognize black achievement came during the worst black history era. During this time, the Southern states passed segregation laws and the poor treatment of African-Americans was reinforced by "scientific" evidence.

"For too long, the narrative of history was the narrative of the white, European male," Kellow explained. This month is an effort to show that African Americans have a history that is distinct and non identical to European history. "Conventional accounts don't tell the whole story."

Harding-Davis explained being aware of black heritage allows society to see how the race has positively contributed to history. Another purpose of the month is to instill pride in the black community. "The initiative is to provide self-awareness."

Kellow agreed the month helps draw attention to little known aspects of the population. "In a country that's committed to diversity, it is important to focus on stories and smaller communities that make up the larger community," Kellow said.

She cited most people's ignorance of the role Canada played in the underground railroad, the term used for the route black slaves used to escape to Canada during the 19th century.

The country as a whole seems to be on its way to accomplishing the goal of raising awareness, Harding-Davis said. "We've made great strides."

But there is still a long way to go, she noted. One way of increasing black history awareness would be to have it included in school curriculums, adding that this goal has not yet been realized.

"We're still not a part of the common curriculum, throughout the entire school system. It's a battle and the whole area is strongly contested." There is a lot of political opposition in including this into the school curriculum.

Throughout Black History Month, the museum is involved in many activities and awareness-raising events in the Windsor area. Harding-Davis said there are many special events such as dinners, planned to publicly promote history, as well as exhibits at the University of Windsor.

There will be museum staff members going out to local schools to read books on black history to school children. Media interviews are a good way to get the message out too, she said.

Photo by Bree Rohal

In an effort to promote Black History Month, the Black Educator's Association has organized various events in black communities across Nova Scotia consisting of presentations and plays recognizing the achievements within the education system, said Darren Desmond, regional representative for the BEA.

"People are becoming more aware, looking for African literature," he said, but admitted their organization is largely ignored except during February. Insufficient funding has also made it difficult for such black heritage organizations to operate effectively, he said

Harding-Davis agreed funding at any level of government is a difficulty they face all the time. "I don't know of any grants available. The town [of Windsor] has assisted us, but not on a regular basis."

The provincial government did provide funding for restoring a church, which was a station of the underground railroad, Harding-Davis said. "The importance of what we do here is only starting to be recognized."

Minister of Citizenship, Culture and Recreation, Helen Johns, recently visited Windsor to tour a site of the underground railroad, said Dan Remington, an information officer at the provincial Ministry. The Ministry had provided some funding for the restoration.

While no official government sponsored event happening during Black History Month, the Minister will be meeting next week with editors of publications for the black community to look at the issues concerning them, Remington said.

"Until we impact at a level that gives us equality in education, we still have work to do," Harding-Davis said.

The museum is starting to become internationally known as it has received requests from Britain and other countries for their resources. While Black History Month is only proclaimed in Canada and some states in the US, the rest of the world does know about the celebration, Harding-Davis added.

On the local scene, Western's Black Students' Association has many events planned throughout the month. Maria Sirivar, president of BSA and a fourth-year Honours Business Administration student said, "[Today] we have opening ceremonies in the [University Community Centre] Atrium to acknowledge the beginning of the month.

Seminars and discussions are planned throughout the month. On Feb. 10 at the London Convention Centre, the annual SOUL Night will be taking place.

Sirivar said Black History Month is about reflecting on ancestry. While the events go on for only a month, she thought people should not forget about black history during the rest of the year. "It's something we should be doing all-year round."

The African Students' Association at Western will also be hosting many events during the month, said Lemlem Girmatsion, president of ASA and a third-year health sciences student. Their annual cultural show, this coming Saturday, is their first major event of Black History Month, followed by dances and seminars.

"Black History Month is there to remember the struggles and obstacles that we had to face and overcome throughout time," Girmatsion said.

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Copyright The Gazette 2000