In February, 1969, a group of black educators and black activist students at Kent State University first proposed Black History Month. Exactly one year later, the month of February was set aside for its first formal celebration.
By 1976, the concept would be celebrated across the United States; even being spotlighted by President Ford during America’s Bicentennial as a way to honor the accomplishments of blacks throughout our nation’s history. Although today, instead of incorporating black history into the mainstream presentation of history conducted throughout the year, U.S. education continues to treat the two separately.
Notably, in 1926, Negro History Week was first conceived after the idea was spearheaded by black historian Carter Woodson. Thereafter, the second week of February was designated for this purpose since it included the birthdays of President Lincoln and black statesman Frederick Douglass, which had been celebrated by blacks since the 1800s.
Yet today, even though Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is included with George Washington’s in the celebration of Presidents Day on the third Monday in February, the exploits of Douglass have unfortunately been lost over time. Who exactly was this man of mixed race (Native American and black, with a white father) born into slavery, though destined for greatness as a champion of equal rights for all?
Frederick Douglass was certainly far from ordinary. Not just a strong believer in the abolition of slavery, he believed in economic freedom and the importance of the individual. A classic libertarian, Douglass held the highest respect for the Constitution and believed it was the key in eliminating the scourge of slavery while inspiring blacks to succeed of their own accord.
Timothy Sandefur, author of “Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man,” notes that Douglass had high regard for men of initiative “who owe little or nothing to birth, relationship, friendly surroundings; to wealth inherited or to early approved means of education; who are what they are, without the aid of any of the favoring conditions by which other men usually rise in the world and achieve great results.”
Learning the basics of reading from white children, Douglass went on to self-refine this skill as a youth while secretly teaching himself how to write as well. Throughout his life, he remained a strong proponent of literacy and education as noted in his autobiographies, where he wrote that “knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.” This was reinforced through Douglass’s efforts to educate other slaves on a regular basis.
In the last major speech of his life, he told an audience, “Education means emancipation. It means light and liberty.” And he held that reason and speech were results of education necessary in overcoming tyranny.
Douglass also held strong beliefs on race relations, and firmly opposed the modern-day concept of racial identity politics when he said, “It was not the race or the color of the negro that won him the battle for liberty. That great battle was won …. because the victim of slavery was a man and a brother to all other men, a child of God, and …. entitled to justice, liberty and equality before the law, and everywhere else.”
In stark contrast with present-day politicians, Douglass was a man willing to join with those of any political persuasion to support a just cause. Those of similar character are rarely seen within the halls of power, yet Douglass’ words continue to resonate loudly and clearly in a world enamored with grandiose thoughts of social justice, racial preferences and politically-correct speech. Repulsed by the idea that men would sacrifice God-given freedoms and reasoned thought in exchange for governmental guarantees of success tied to a lessened self-reliance, his traditional beliefs are certainly worthy of being included in our current-day arena of ideas.
Frederick Douglass was many things; statesman, social activist, orator, pastor, author and abolitionist. And his many achievements qualify him to be discussed not just as a black American hero each February, but one who should be acknowledged throughout the year.
Mark Figley is a political activist from Elida. Reach him a [email protected]