87th annual Black History Month: 148 years of freedom
Published: Thursday, February 28, 2013
Updated: Thursday, February 28, 2013 01:02
Carter G. Woodson, a professor at Harvard, is the founder of Black History Month. In 1926, fed up with the general disregard of the history textbooks toward black people, he proposed a Negro History Week to take place in the second week of February. Time passed, and Negro History Week was soon adopted around the country. In 1976, on the 50th anniversary of the creation of Black History Week, which it was then called, was expanded into Black History Month.
Woodson chose the second week of February, and thus now the month of February, to celebrate black history because it included the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
So while Black History Month gets to share the shortest month of the year with National Bird Feeding Month, it’s not because black history is somehow considered less important than other history. It is because the son of two former slaves, Woodson, picked the week in which he believed two of the most important people to black history were born.
Regardless, it’s the time of year to look back. Unlike the groundhogs, we’re not looking for shadows.
I am white. I grew up, and now live, in a predominantly white community. I have a white social network. I had a black friend back in high school, but he was the “gay kid,” not the “black kid.” So I’m understandably terrified of writing about someone else’s cultural history. I am afraid of getting it wrong, offending or focusing on the cliche.
But I’m going to do it anyway.
Woodson, the founder of Black History Month, was the son of former slaves. After finally being allowed to attend high school when he was 20, he went on to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Chicago, and his Ph.D. from Harvard. Woodson was only the second black man to be granted a doctorate from Harvard — the first was W.E.B. Du Bois. In 1915, Woodson returned to Chicago in order to join in the celebration of the 50 year anniversary of the end of slavery in the United States, which was the catalyst that started him on the path to creating Black History Month.
My ancestors were Vikings. They might have owned slaves, but their slaves, called thralls, were opponents defeated in battle and captured on their raiding and pillaging voyages. It wasn’t a matter of skin color. The Vikings would have been as likely to become slaves as own them.
But that doesn’t mean I have any less responsibility to learn about the tragic history of slavery in the United States. The United States was the last Western nation, discounting Nazi-occupied Germany, which used slave labor in the concentration camps, to abolish slavery. Mexico abolished slavery in 1830, the British Empire in 1833, Cuba in 1862 and the United States finally ratified and passed the 13th Amendment in 1865.
We can’t ignore our roles just because we personally have never been a slave or slave owner. We cannot simply ignore this ugly past and start fresh. That’s like shrugging off Oregon’s role in this ugly facet of our history. Sure, slavery was illegal in Oregon. However, so were black people. It was illegal to be black in Oregon, or to help black people enter the state.
To drive out the black “incursion,” Oregon instituted the infamous Lash Law. The Lash Law stated that blacks in Oregon “be they free or slave — be whipped twice a year until he or she shall quit the territory.” When this punishment was deemed “too harsh,” the punishment was reduced to forced labor. The Lash Law was repealed in 1845.
Oregon’s constitution had an exclusionary clause to deter black settlers. Oregon was the only free state in the Union to have such a clause. The clause actually made it illegal to be black in Oregon until 1849, when the law was changed to allow current black residents to legally remain in the state, while new black immigrants were barred from entering. In 1857, the clause was altered to prohibit current black residents from owning real estate or entering other legal contracts.
Despite being made void by the 13th Amendment in 1865, this clause was still on the books until 1927. It was one of those strange artifacts of the law books, like how in Los Angeles it is still technically illegal to peel an orange in your hotel room.
In 1926, the first year Black History Week was celebrated and a year before the clause was removed from Oregon’s constitution, Carrie Halsell graduated from Oregon Agricultural College — the college would later change its name to Oregon State University — with a bachelor’s degree in commerce. Halsell is believed to be OSU’s first black alumnus, and was memorialized by the university for this when Carrie Halsell Residence Hall was named for her in 2002.
When Halsell’s name was nominated for the new building, the OSU Alumni Association webpage reports the nominating committee as saying, “Few African-Americans lived in Oregon in the early 1900s, and we can only imagine the difficulties and personal challenges that Carrie Halsell might have encountered as she worked toward completing her high school and college programs in Oregon schools from 1915-1926. We believe Carrie Halsell Ward exemplifies our mission of student academic success and represents a ‘trailblazer’ who used her education to advance the success of others throughout her life.”