Black History Month, an annual event that lasts the entire month of February, commemorates the many contributions that African Americans and Black Americans have made to this country. I will discuss the real meaning behind Black History Month. I will be highlighting the achievements of some of the African American and Black American unsung heroes that don’t get the recognition they deserve. Finally, I will spotlight the crucial role that black slaves played in the production of hemp in this country.
The History of Black History Month
The creation of Black History Month, also known as African American History Month, was the brainchild of historian Carter G. Woodson, along with several other high-profile African Americans. It evolved from “Negro History Week” in 1926 to an entire month in the late 1960s. Schools and communities across the country began to organize local festivities, create history clubs and feature performances and lectures.
Since 1976, starting with Gerald Ford, every American president has designated February as Black History Month with a specific theme. This year, the theme is “The Vote,” commemorating the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment, giving black men the vote in 1870 and the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment which granted women the vote in 1920.
BTW, Black History Month is also celebrated in other countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom.
The Real Meaning Behind Black History Month
While it is important to celebrate the achievements of Black America, the more important meaning behind Black History Month is to continue to demand that African Americans and Black Americans be treated as equal citizens. Founder Carter Woodson believed that understanding and appreciating the history of a group of people was the first step to gaining equality. While much racial progress has been made during this nation’s history, racism is alive and well. We all must keep fighting to destroy the prejudices that keep many of our fellow citizens from accepting black people as their equals.
The Slavery/ Hemp Connection
In 1606, the hemp plant was introduced to North America. In 1619, white legislators in Virginia passed a law to make it illegal not to grow hemp. Those in Massachusetts and Connecticut thought this was a splendid idea and passed the same law. African American slaves were forced to plant, grow, harvest and process hemp. Several other northern states tried to jump on the hemp bandwagon. But they failed to establish a successful hemp industry due to their lack of manpower as the majority of black slave labor lived in the Southern states.
Many of the framers of the US Constitution were hemp farmers who owned slaves. They forced them to engage in the back-breaking work of hemp production in the the late 1700s. Many became ill from inhaling the dust that was generated during hemp production, working 10 hour days, six days a week. They were expected to exceed the daily harvesting quotas.
Beginning in 1775, Kentucky farmers, who used slave labor, led in hemp production, which reached its pinnacle by 1850. 40,000 tons of hemp was grown on 2,000 acres represented by 8,327 hemp plantations. The number of hemp plantations declined enormously during and after the Civil War with the abolition of slavery as white farmers lost their cheap black labor force.
Some Big Contributions Made by Black Americans
1. Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, is considered to be the first permanent resident of what would become the city of Chicago. He is often recognized as the “Founder of Chicago.” He is of African descent, although his place of birth is unknown. He was able to amass much wealth and he settled on the north bank of the Chicago River in 1790.
2. Frederick McKinley Jones was one of the most prolific inventors, holding 61 US patents. He is best known for his refrigeration system for long-distance trucks, ships and railroad cars. This invention transformed the food industry by saving food from spoiling as it was transported across the country. During World War II, the army used his refrigeration trucks to transport blood. He also invented an air-conditioning unit for military field hospitals and a refrigerator for military kitchens.
Despite being orphaned at age 9, he was able to teach himself mechanics and electronics. He built a transmitter for his town’s new radio station. He is also responsible for inventing a device that added sound to motion pictures.
In 1944, he became the first African American elected to the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers. In 1991, he received a posthumous award, the National Medal of Technology, becoming the first African American to do so. He was also posthumously inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame in 1977.
3. Exodusters is the nickname given to the group of African Americans who migrated between 1879 and 1980 from the southern states to Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado, looking for freedom and a better life. They were followed by more than 40,000 blacks during what is known as “the Exoduster Movement of 1879.
4. Joe Louis, known as “Brown Bomber,” is considered to be one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all time. He is recognized as the first African American to achieve the status of national hero. He was instrumental in helping end segregation in the US military while he was in the Army during World War II. From 1942-45, he served in a Special Services Division after completing his training in an all-black unit. He is also credited with the integration of professional golf, appearing in a Professional Golfers’ Association of America (PGA) sponsored event in 1952.
As we celebrate, let us not lose sight of the fact that Woodson created Black History Month as a political act to destroy the prejudices that divide us and teach love regardless of race. He viewed the failure to accept black people as equal citizens as an existential threat to our nation.
myblackhistory.net, Frederic Jones: African American Inventor - Black History
history.com, Black History Month, updated Dec. 4, 2019 (original article Jan. 14, 2010)
time.com, America Is Losing the Real Meaning of Black History Month, Theodore R. Johnson, Feb. 20, 2018
myelaninmary.com, Did You Know The History of Hemp Included Slave Labor? Feb. 27, 2019