When Dr. Carter G. Woodson pioneered Negro History Week in 1926, he and other scholars observed the week that included the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, then perhaps the two most influential historical figures in African -American history.
Woodson created the week to acknowledge the contributions of black people in America, which he found had been overlooked.
In his book “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” Woodson wrote:
“The so-called modern education, with all its defects, however, does others so much more good than it does the Negro, because it has been worked out in conformity to the needs of those who have enslaved and oppressed weaker peoples.”
Nearly nine decades later, debate still remains about whether or not the educational system has been perverted to exclude the acknowledgement of American achievements and contributions made by black people.
In 1986, the first year Dr. Martin King Jr. Day was recognized as a federal holiday, President Ronald Reagan addressed the exclusion by issuing Presidential Proclamation 5443.
The proclamation proclaimed “the foremost purpose of Black History Month is to make all Americans aware of this struggle for freedom and equal opportunity.”
“Black history is a book rich with the American experience but with many pages yet unexplored,” Reagan wrote.
In modern times, scholars explain the lack of familiarity with black history at the university-level by describing a two-tier account of American history.
At an annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in 2003, University of Michigan History Professor Kevin Gaines said the bifurcation of American history and African American history is a real concern for the educational system.
“African American history is American history,” said Dr. Clovis Semmes, hrofessor and director of the Black Studies Program at UMKC. “The problem is the African-American experience is always considered to be of less importance.”
The advent of programs like the Black Studies Program at UMKC and other schools has brought academic attention to black history, but the question remains as to whether those programs are sufficient.
Anthony Shiu, assistant professor of English Language and Literature, said the problem is compounded by K-12 schools that don’t adequately cover African-American history.
“There are always concerns about progress, especially since students, for the most part, don’t have a chance to engage in the deep study of these fields but, rather, have to experience a curriculum that tends to see African American history and literature as ‘additions’ to the curriculum instead of viewing them as basic fundamentals that deserve more time and attention,” Shiu said.
Some scholars have also questioned the lack of black study course requirements.
Semmes believes an introductory class should be required, at least.
“We need to learn all of these things to understand fully the human experience and to bring to bear the reality of this so-called ideal of equality, democracy,” he said.