Why is Black History Month celebrated in February?
The answer is really quite love-ly.
For Black people enslaved, a birthday was as hard to come by as justice. But, never one to be outdone by the “impossible,” Frederick Bailey wanted a birthday—and a birthday he was going to have. First, he'd have to find out when it was.
He’d heard that his father was the slave owner from whom he'd escaped, so he couldn't ask him. His mother, Harriet Bailey, had been sold away from him when he was only five, so he couldn't ask her. But, he could remember stories she'd told him before they’d been separated.
She said he was born on a Maryland plantation in the ‘teens. He chose the mid-teens, 1818, for his birth year. She always called him her “little valentine.” He chose Valentine’s Day for his birth date. With that, Frederick finally had the birthday he'd always wanted: February 14, 1818.
Then . . .
In 1926, Dr. Carter G. Woodson wanted to solve a problem. For centuries, Americans were taught to believe that African Americans had “no history or culture.” Now that is, of course, impossible. Everyone inherits the history and culture of their family elders. But, this horrific idea was used to justify slavery and segregation by making Black people seem less than human.
Dr. Woodson had a better idea: he’d tell the truth. He would research and share the true history of Black people in countries throughout the world over.
To promote his idea, he created Negro History Week (now, Black History Month). He chose February in honor of two birthdays. Born on February 12, 1809, Abraham Lincoln was the first American president to take action to end slavery. Born on February 14, 1818 Harriet Bailey’s “little Valentine's” became the noted Underground Railroad conductor, abolitionist, and publisher, Frederick Douglass. As a special adviser to President Lincoln, he proposed—and the president wrote and signed—the “Emancipation Proclamation”; ending slavery.
Such is the power of love.
We never know how we will remember what our parents say or what their words will mean to us when we need them most. Frederick's mother—an enslaved woman with so little to give—empowered her son for life with the gift of her enduring love.
For this love-ly reason, February is Black History Month.
Frederick Bailey's mother was sold to a new owner, leaving the 5-year-old behind. This was a common practice in the slavery era.
Abraham Lincoln's successful campaign to end slavery in the United States culminated in the Emancipation Declaration of 1863. Alexander Gardner via Wikimedia Commons
;In 1926, Carter G. Woodson (left) shown here as a young man, pioneered the celebration of "Negro History Week" during the second week in February, to coincide with marking the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (above) and Frederick Douglass (right). Black United Students and Black educators at Kent State University expanded the celebration to become Black History Month on February 1, 1970. Woodson Courtesy of the New River Gorge National River website, National Park Service, Department of the Interior, United States Government; Douglass via Wikimedia Commons.
Janus Adams has produced Steal Away-- a package of a book, an audio and a game about the Underground Railroad. You can learn more about her award-winning series of adventure and travel books, audios and games on her website called Back Pax Kids.
MLA 8 Citation
Adams, Janus. "Title tbd." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 28 Feb. 2018,
Stories that Surprise and Inspire
In 1963, at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., President Lyndon Johnson awarded singer Marian Anderson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a president can give to a civilian (someone not in the military). He explained why this African American musician was being honored: “Artist and citizen, she has ennobled her race and her country, while her voice has enthralled the world.”
Twenty-four years earlier, however, some in Washington weren’t interested in honoring her but instead treated her unfairly. By then, she had given wonderful concerts of classical music in Europe and the United States, including at the White House. But in 1939, when a local university tried to have her perform at Constitution Hall, Washington’s concert hall, the managers of Constitution Hall wouldn’t let her, just because of the color of her skin.
Eleanor Roosevelt, President Franklin Roosevelt’s wife, was upset by this example of discrimination against African Americans and arranged for Marian Anderson to perform that spring at the Lincoln Memorial. More than 75,000 people filled the area in front of the memorial to hear Marian Anderson sing. Thousands more around the country listened on radio to a live broadcast of the performance. She started by singing “America,” then sang some classical pieces, and ended with spirituals, including “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Newspapers and magazines wrote rave reviews, which let thousands more people learn about the dignified and courageous way she had triumphed over discrimination. Four years later, in 1943, she was at last invited to perform at Constitution Hall.
Did this end unfair treatment for this singer? Not exactly. In 1953, Marian Anderson was again denied permission to perform at a concert hall, this time by the Lyric Theater in Baltimore, Maryland. Luckily, this city’s music- and freedom-loving citizens came to her defense. Some wrote letters to newspapers complaining about “this insult to a great American singer.” Others threatened never to go to that concert hall again. Hundreds complained directly to the Lyric’s managers. Finally, Maryland’s commission on interracial relations persuaded the Lyric’s owners to let Marion Anderson perform there on January 8, 1954. The hall was filled to overflowing with her enthusiastic fans.
Ten years later, racial discrimination in concert halls finally became illegal. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin at any place that serves the public, including concert halls, theaters, stadiums, restaurants, hotels, and anywhere else.
Source notes for this Minute may be found be clicking here.
Amy Nathan is the author of Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round Ride into the Civil Rights Movement, which tells about many little-known and yet important stories in civil rights history, including the story of Marian Anderson being the first African American to perform at Baltimore’s Lyric Theater in January 1954, and also the story about the merry-go-round that’s located not far from where Marian Anderson gave her famous 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Victory." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 27 Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
When seamstress Rosa Parks boarded a bus after work in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955, she had no idea she was about to make history.
At that time, Montgomery buses were strictly segregated. According to city law, whites had the right to the first few rows of seats. Under a long-standing custom, blacks had to give up their seats as additional whites boarded. So when that happened, the driver ordered Parks and three other blacks to move further back. The other three did. Parks didn’t. The driver repeated his order. Again Parks refused. She was arrested.
Years later, a legend grew up that she was tired from a long day on her feet. But as she explained, “No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Black leaders, who had long shared her frustration, sensed an opportunity. They quickly formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and selected a young minister who had just moved to Montgomery as leader. His name was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Under his leadership, Montgomery blacks ordered a boycott of the bus system. They used many methods of alternate transportation, sometimes walking for an hour or even more. Despite whites’ burning of several churches and an explosion that destroyed Dr. King’s home, they persisted: day after day, week after week, month after month. Since blacks formed about 75 percent of the normal ridership, the loss of their fares began crippling the system. Finally, on December 20 the following year Montgomery repealed the law requiring segregated buses. The victory also catapulted Dr. King to national prominence.
Parks didn’t fare so well. She was fired from her job and received numerous death threats. She and her husband moved to Detroit.
Honors began pouring in. In 2000, Time magazine named Rosa Parks—often called the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement”—as one of the 100 most important people of the twentieth century.
Parks had another honor that year. In 1994, the white supremacist group Ku Klux Klan had announced a plan to clean up a portion of Highway I-55 near St. Louis, Missouri under the federal Adopt-a-Highway program. That meant signs would be posted to acknowledge the Klan’s “public service.” The Missouri Department of Transportation objected, but a series of court cases concluding in 2000 deemed the objection as unconstitutional. The state quickly responded by naming that portion of I-55 the Rosa Parks Freeway. The Klan never did clean it up.
On the morning of December 1, 1955, hardly anyone in Rosa Parks s home town of Montgomery, Alabama had heard of her. By the time that night fell, she was on her way to becoming a household word all over the United States. Jim Whiting tells the story in his book What's So Great About Rosa Parks? For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 26 Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Stories that Surprise and Inspire
Rosa Parks is famous for refusing to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Buses were segregated there, with rules that made African Americans sit in the back. However, Rosa Parks wasn’t the first to protest against such unfair bus rules. Others had done so earlier, including Sarah Keys Evans, a young private in the United States Army who made her stand for justice three years before Rosa Parks.
In August 1952, Sarah was traveling home to North Carolina from Ft. Dix in New Jersey, where she was stationed. Early that summer morning, she boarded a bus in New Jersey—where buses weren’t segregated—and sat toward the middle of the bus. After midnight, the bus entered Roanoke Rapids, a town in North Carolina. Sarah’s hometown was farther south. A new bus driver took over the bus and ordered her to move to the back. When she didn’t, she was arrested. She had to spend the night in jail and pay a $25 fine the next morning. Police put her on another bus that took her the rest of the way home, forcing her to sit in the back.
With the help of a young African American lawyer, Dovey Roundtree, Sarah Keys Evans filed a complaint against the bus company with the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). Sarah won!
The ICC was in charge of interstate transportation—buses and trains that travel from state to state. The ICC said it was wrong for interstate buses to force people to sit in certain seats because of their race. This victory was announced one week before Rosa Parks made her stand on a different kind of bus—a local city bus, not an interstate one. Rosa Parks’ action led to a year-long protest in Montgomery and a Supreme Court victory that called for an end to segregation on local buses, too. It would take several years, however, and more protests before both of these rulings were finally obeyed in all parts of the country.
In recent years, Sarah Keys Evans has received several important honors, including an award from the U.S. Department of Justice, a proclamation from Congress, and a plaque at the Women’s Memorial in Washington. She was also honored in the place where her troubles began. An exhibit about her role in civil rights history was installed in the town museum of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.
Source notes for this Minute may be found by clicking here.
"Amy Nathan tells Sarah’s story dexterously, writing the nonfiction narrative in a very simple yet compelling way that makes the book hard to put down. Sarah’s courage and determination show through in Amy’s writing, and you can easily hear Sarah’s strong spirit speaking. Take A Seat, Make A Stand is an inspiring book of a young woman’s audacity and her act of civil disobedience that changed the way Americans are treated today." Review from New Moon magazine.
" Nathan strikes just the right balance of emotion and facts necessary to reach children within the context of a history lesson. As a result, this thin volume would be a good choice for elementary classrooms as part of a Civil Rights unit. A winner. " Kirkus review.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "Sarah Keys: An Early Pioneer for Justice." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 15 Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Kerrie Logan Hollihan
Teaching the Power of Wonder
Dr. Percy Julian was my neighbor in Oak Park, Illinois. I didn’t know the family who lived in the pretty home surrounded by an iron fence. But I heard the story, that the house was firebombed after they had bought it back in 1951. The Julian's were African-Americans coming to a white community.
Later I learned more. Dr. Julian was someone who didn’t take no for an answer. He grew up in the segregated South going to black-only schools. He hoped to study plant chemistry, but no southern college would accept a Negro, so he moved on. He went to DePauw University in Indiana and helped pay tuition by waiting tables at a white fraternity. He graduated at the top of his class in 1920 and wanted to get his doctorate at Harvard. Harvard refused, because that would mean Julian could teach whites—and that was not allowed.
Julian moved on. He went to Austria to earn his doctorate, and in that lab he studied chemicals in plants, especially beans. Many excellent medicines came from plant chemicals, but extracting them was often costly.
Upon returning to DePauw to teach, Julian was able to synthesize a plant chemical called physostigmine. His discovery produced inexpensive medicine for patients with glaucoma, an eye disease causing blindness. But the Great Depression fell across America, and DePauw ran out of money to fund his research.
Julian moved on. A Chicago paint company hired Julian as the first African-American to head a research lab in American industry. Julian had to travel for his work, and motels refused him a bed. One year he slept in his car 32 times, sometimes in the dead of winter.
Julian and his coworkers developed inks and paper coatings, dog food and a product called Aero-Foam to extinguish fires on aircraft carriers. His team discovered many uses for soybeans, at that time viewed as food for cows and pigs. Most important, they synthesized “Substance S” from soybeans. This synthetic drug replaced wildly-expensive cortisone. Julian’s landmark achievement offered relief to kids suffering from the painful and disfiguring disease rheumatoid arthritis.
Percy Julian worked all his days, always moving on to make life better. He built his own research business, volunteered at church, played the piano, and loved his family. He became a quiet hero to many, including me. I’m writing a book about Dr. Julian, which I hope you’ll see in print. For now, visit this site.
Kerrie Hollihan has already written about one great scientist, Sir Isaac Newton. You can read more about this book here.
Kerrie Hollihan is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Hollihan, Kerrie Logan. "Dr Percy Julian: Forgotten Genius." Nonfiction Minute,
iNK Think Tank, 13 Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/