Black History Month celebrates the achievements of African Americans and recognizes their pivotal role in the history of the United States. Originally established in February, 1926, Negro History Week, as the fruitful vision of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), has been transformed into the current month-long celebration. This year’s theme is “Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African American Memories.”
In 1976, fifty years after the first celebration, February was officially designated as Black History Month. Since that time, every American president, Democrat and Republican, has issued proclamations endorsing the Association’s annual theme. In 1996 President Clinton issued a proclamation recognizing “National African American History Month” with that designation being used since then.In the unfolding history of the nation, places where African Americans have made history have become critically important.
The ASALH notes, “One cannot tell the story of America without preserving and reflecting on the places where African Americans have made history. . . . . The imprint of Americans of African descent is deeply embedded in the narrative of the American past, and the sites prompt us to remember. Over time, many of these sites of African American memory became hallowed grounds.”
This year’s theme also directs attention to the centennial celebration of the National Park Service and spotlights the more than twenty-five sites and the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom that are part of America’s hallowed grounds. The following list highlights 10 places of importance in the landscape of African American history.
Frederick Douglass’ home — Cedar Hill
Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey (1818-1895), Frederick Douglass rose to prominence as a social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman, as one of the most celebrated figures of the Nineteenth Century in African American culture. After escaping from slavery, he relayed his life experiences in his three notable autobiographies, having taught himself to read and to speak with the precision of a skilled orator.
During his lifetime, Douglass lived in various locations in the Washington, D.C. area. In 1877 Douglass purchased his family’s final home in the Nation’s Capital. Located on a hill above the Anacostia River, the renowned public figure and his wife Anna, purchased a house built between 1855 and 1859 by an architect from Philadelphia. The couple named the location Cedar Hill.
Although the original house contained six to fourteen rooms, Douglass purchased additional acreage and expanded the house to 21 rooms. The home underwent a series of renovations and ultimately became part of the Frederick Douglass estate which is now a unit of the National Park Service, preserved as the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.
Home of the Father of Black History
Carter Godwin Woodson (1875-1950), the Father of Black History, graduated from Berea College in 1903, obtained his masters from the University of Chicago in 1908, and his PhD from Harvard in 1912. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, (known today as: The Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History) in 1915 and the Journal of Negro History in 1916. Through his efforts Negro History week was established. He was the moving force and guiding light in making Black Studies a respectable academic pursuit.
Located in NW Washington, DC in the Shaw neighborhood, the three-story Victorian row-house served as the home of the Father of Black History from 1915 until his death in 1950. The location also served as the national headquarters of ASALH until the early 70s.
National Historic Landmark summary listing of the National Park Service provided additional information regarding the property. Although designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1976, the house became vacant in the 1990s. In 2001, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the site on its annual “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places” The property was acquired by the National Park Service in 2005 and is being currently rehabilitated.
George Washington Carver National Memorial
Born into slavery in the years just prior to the end of the Civil War, George Washington Carver (c. 1860?-1943) pressed through the most harrowing circumstances to become a renowned botanist, inventor, artist, educator, and humanitarian. With an insatiable thirst for knowledge Carver graduated from high school in a time and place of extreme oppression and discrimination. He went on to earn a Master’s degree from Iowa State Agricultural School (now Iowa State University), where he became the first black faculty member.
Carver is best known as a scientist who worked with alternative crops to cotton, such as peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes, In 1903, Carver began his peanut research at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. In his lifetime, Carver discovered more than 300 other uses for peanuts and other products grown in the South. Over the years of his life, the agricultural chemist became known as “the father of the peanut industry.” He was also called “the Peanut Man” and the “Wizard of Tuskegee,”
According to information from the National Park Service, the George Washington Carver National Monument was established by an act of Congress in July of 1943. The National Park Service maintains 210 acres of the original 240-acre farm owned by Moses and Susan Carver, the white couple who raised Carver and his sibling.
Carver’s boyhood home was built in the midst of rolling hills, woodlands, and prairies with a nature trail. Special attractions of the George Washington Carver National Memorial include a museum, and an interactive exhibit area for students, and other buildings related to Carver’s younger years. Among the displays on the Carver Trail is the depiction of the celebrated scientist as a young boy, entitled, “Boy Carver Statue,” by Robert Amendola. The monument is located in Southwest Missouri approximately two miles west of Diamond, MO.
Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church
As one of the first African American churches in the nation, Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church at the corner of Sixth and Lombard Streets in Philadelphia, represents one of the most influential institutions in African-American culture. Founded in 1794 by Richard Allen (1760–1831), minister, activist, and civic leader, the congregation has met at that location since that time, making it the oldest church property in the United States to be continuously owned by African Americans. Originally organized when Allen and members of St. George’s Methodist Church protested and departed because of racial segregation, the congregation was later received into full fellowship within the predominately white Methodist Episcopal Church in 1794. In 1816 Allen brought together other black Methodist congregations from the region and organized the new African Methodist Episcopal Church denomination, serving as its first elected Bishop.
Most remarkably, Allen’s portrait graces the new Black Heritage stamp for 2016. The First Day of Issue ceremony is scheduled to take place on Feb. 2, 2016 at Mother Bethel. This stamp coincides with the anniversary of Allen’s founding of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church 200 years ago. The current church building was constructed in 1888-1890, and it has been designated a National Historic Landmark
Mary McLeod Bethune sculpture in Lincoln Park in Washington, DC
As a pioneering educator, civil rights activist, and government official, Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955), was recognized as one of the most respected Black women of the early Twentieth Century. She learned the value of education at an early age, eventually establishing a school for young black girls which was later expanded to Bethune-Cookman College, where she served as president. In addition, she founded civil rights organizations for women, while championing equality for African Americans in the political arena and beyond, as an adviser to five presidents. According to the Eleanor Roosevelt Project, as an advocate for women’s rights, she was known as “the first lady of the struggle.” Aside from being the first African American Woman to head a Federal Agency, she also served as a special advisor on minority affairs to President Roosevelt.
In addition, in 1935 she founded the National Council of Negro Women, an organization whose headquarters are still located in the District of Columbia. The Bethune Council House was Mary McLeod Bethune’s last official Washington, DC residence and the first headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women, both of which are listed as National Historic Sites and part of the National Parks Service.
A larger-than-life-size statue of African American educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune by Robert Berks stands in Lincoln Park in southeast Washington. Supported by the cane given to her by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Bethune is depicted as handing a copy of her legacy to two children. The bronze sculpture is the first memorial in the Nation’s Capital dedicated to an African American leader.
Stop along the Underground Railroad
Places of particular interest in Black History are some of the numerous stops along the Underground Railroad, a network of sites, routes and events that are linked to the journeys of thousands of escaped slaves, moving from bondage to freedom. Because it borders slave states of Kentucky and West Virginia (formerly Virginia), Ohio provides a rich intersection of stations on the Underground Railroad.
One of the notable stations on the Underground Railroad in the Columbus, OH area is the Hanby House in Westerville. Built in 1846 and occupied by the family of Bishop William Hanby, one of the founders of Otterbein University. Dedicated as a museum in 1937, the home is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
One of Hanby’s most celebrated offspring was Benjamin Russell Hanby, composer, abolitionist, teacher, and minister, who is remembered for his Civil War ballad “Darling Nelly Gray.” The inspiration for the popular Union tune came from a slave whom the Hanbys helped in their station on the Underground Railroad.
The home contains furniture and personal items from the family, including a walnut desk made by Hanby. The original plates for the first edition of “Darling Nelly Gray” and a large collection of sheet music and books are also at the site. The house is maintained and operated by the Westerville Historical Society under agreement with the Ohio Historical Society
Du Sable’s historic homesite
Haitian-born explorer and trapper, Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable, traveled to America in the 1780s, leaving New Orleans and journeying up the Mississippi River to Illinois where he eventually settled and explored an area called Eschikagou, (Chicago) by the Native Americans of the area. Du Sable built the first permanent home by a non-Native and established a trading post on the banks of the Chicago River.
According to the National Historic Landmark summary listing of the National Park Service, the site of Du Sable’s home was located on the expansive property that stretched from the banks of the Chicago River north to what is now Chicago Avenue and extended from State Street to Lake Michigan. In 1976 this location was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and cited as a National Historic Landmark.
Among the many people drawn to Florida during its plantation period from 1763-1865 were adventurers, such as Zephaniah Kingsley, who made a fortune by obtaining land and establishing Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island. The community of those who settled on such plantations included wealthy landowners as well as the enslaved, some of whom would later become free landowners. All of these people played a part in the history of Kingsley Plantation which goes back more than 150 years.
Beale Street: Putting the blues on the map
One of the places of musical renown in African American History is Beale Street in Memphis, TN. The man who put Beale Street on the musical map and set its connection to the Blues was none other than William Christopher Handy, WC Handy (1873-1958). The talented musician and composer is widely recognized as the “Father of the Blues.”
Having settled in Memphis, Handy transformed a campaign song into a popular blues piece that he eventually retitled “Memphis Blues.” Although Handy didn’t profit directly from “Memphis Blues,” he went on produce a series of blues hits, including “St. Louis Blues” in 1914, “Beale St. Blues” in 1916, and a host of other popular blues pieces.
Originally called Beale Avenue, the name was changed to Beale Street in the 1920s and beyond when legendary blues musicians and singers performed at various venues at that location. Situated on Beale Street is WC Handy Park where a bronze statue pays tribute to the composer and musician. More than a hundred years after the publication of “Memphis Blues,” WC Handy’s influence as “The Father of the Blues” is recognized and celebrated world-wide. Blues influences can be detected in a variety of musical genres, including jazz, rhythm and blues, for sure, rock, pop, soul, and even classical music.
Statue of Satchmo Armstrong across from Mahalia Jackson Performing Acts Center in New Orleans
Located in the Tremi neighborhood near the French Quarter, the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park was created in 1994 to celebrate the origins and development of jazz. Most of the historical park property consists of four acres (16,000 within Louis Armstrong Park leased by the National Park Service. There is an office, a visitor center, and a concert venue several blocks away in the French Quarter. The Park provides a setting for sharing the cultural history of the people and places which helped to shape the development of this distinctly American musical form.
The photo shows the statue of Louis Armstrong with the Mahalia Jackson Center for the Performing Arts in the background; both renowned jazz and gospel artists were natives of New Orleans. The Louis Armstrong Park continues to be a prominent landmark because it also houses Congo Square, one of only two areas in the United States where African drumming, singing, and dancing were permitted during the late 1700s and mid-1800s. In this place early Native American and African American music merged into jazz which was performed at Perseverance Hall where parades for Blacks and Whites ended and where jazz musicians played during the 1920s and 1930s,
The Origin Of Black History Month
.Black History Month as we know it today has only been around since 1976, but its origins trace back to 1915. It was originally designated as “Negro History Week” through the efforts of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.