February is celebrated as African American History Month in the United States. In 1915, Carter Godwin Woodson founded The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Through that association, Dr. Woodson called for the establishment of Negro History Week as a way to bring national attention to the accomplishments of African Americans. In 1976 the observance was expanded to a full month.
Africans were brought to America from its earliest days in the 1600s, most of them as slaves. By the early 1800s, the institution of slavery was dying out except in the South. Eleven southern states seceded from the Union, provoking the American Civil War, which began in 1861. As part of that war, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, ordering that the slaves be freed in the American South.
Despite constitutional guarantees of equal rights, the former slaves were subject to discrimination. In the South, legal segregation forced the races to remain apart and educational opportunities were denied to black citizens.
Such laws were finally overturned by the federal courts beginning in the 1950s. Despite the obstacles, many black Americans achieved success and distinction. There have been visionary leaders like abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King. Today, African Americans like Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice are among those in important leadership roles.
As President George W. Bush said, “We see the greatness of America in those who have risen above injustice and enriched our society, a greatness reflected in the resolve of [baseball player] Jackie Robinson, the intellect of W.E.B. DuBois [the founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], and the talent of [jazz musician] Louis Armstrong. We also gain a deeper appreciation for the African American experience in the writings of James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Zora Neal Hurston.”
“As a nation and as individuals,” said President Bush, “we must be vigilant in responding to discrimination wherever we find it. By promoting diversity, understanding, and opportunity, we will continue our efforts to build a society where every person, of every race, can realize the promise of America.”