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The Capital Spotlight
 
Thursday, February 26, 1998
 
“History of Black History Month”
A Frank Talk with Dr. Robert Starling Pritchard: Founding Father of the
“Black History Month Observance”
 
African Americans are generally aware of the cultural orientation of February as Black History Month. But, what do we really know about the establishment of the “Black History Month Observance?” An interview with Dr. Robert Starling Pritchard gives us some insight and a rather global view of its beginnings.
Since its inception on 1 February 1965, the occasion of the annually occurring Black History Month Observance has been an opportunity, especially in urban area schools, to educate youth about those great Americans of African descent who came before them, and also to pay homage to their progeny in the African Diaspora.
During recent years, the “Black History Month Observance” has increasingly become a marketer`s dream as commercials, greeting cards and television specials have dominated the media during the month of February. The 33 year old annual event has helped bridge the “gaps of misunderstanding” which have historically existed between African Americans and Americans of other colors, creeds, cultures and national origins.
Dr. Robert Starling Pritchard, known as history`s first career viable virtuoso concert pianist, recording artist, composer, and humanist of African descent, described the Black History Month Observance as having evolved from an 105 year old history of efforts by many notable African Americans (including himself) who contributed to the evolution of the “Black Consciousness Movement” which climaxed with the establishment of the Black History Month Observance.
Dr. Pritchard also explained, that similar to most significant ideas, concepts, philosophies, inventions, etc., which have taken hold of the public consciousness, the “economic development” Panafricanist orientation of the Black History Month Observance, is one which evolved over a century in which the relevance of the forms by which previous annual celebrations of the contributions of African Americans to the American Society had been tested, refined and re-evaluated in terms of their relevance as a challenge to contemporary conditions of racialism in the USA. Dr. Pritchard goes on to give the following evolution of Black History Month:
 
1893 Colored American Day Observance: Frederick Douglas, Founder
The first organized “Black Consciousness Movement” was launched in the post Emancipation Proclamation era in the US. The movement, launched in 1893 by abolitionist Frederick Douglas, was the predecessor of today`s Black History Month. In 1893, Douglas approached Congress for permission to present a Colored American Day observance at the Chicago World`s Fair. He was granted the permission to carry out his plan but was given no funds or other assistance to accomplish the task. Douglas` staging of “Colored American Day” became the initial step in the 105 year history of an evolutionary process which expressed itself in two very significant subsequent attempts of distinguished African Americans to establish a permanent annually recurring Observance of the achievements of Americans of African descent.
Historically documented as amongst the most outstanding participants in the 1893 “Colored American Day” predecessor to today`s “Black History Month Observance” was Frederick Douglas himself. His brilliant oratory was hailed in both American and foreign newspapers. Certainly Douglas` intent to feature a “Colored American Day Observance” which would significantly demonstrate that American citizens of African descent were worthy of being integrated into American Society… was amply projected by the brilliant performance of the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar (whose recitations accompanied by Douglas` violinist grandson, Joseph Douglas) reportedly captured the respect and admiration of the International spectators at the Chicago World`s Fair. The consistency of the high standard of the “Colored American Day” feature-presentations was also demonstrated by the masterful performances of the African American concert violinist Will Marion Cook; and the father of the “Blues”, Harry T. Burleigh. Absent from the programme was the internationally celebrated “Diva”, known as the “Black Patti.”
Douglas` “Colored American Day Observance” provided for an international cultural, educational and public relations show-case for the accomplishments of both a generation of manumitted slaves and of several generations of free Black men and women. The success of the Observance was not lost on either its domestic or international audiences, both of which reportedly understood Douglas` contention that Americans of African descent were as new American Citizens worthy of the same respect, rights, privileges and duties which were enjoyed by White Americans.
Also, not lost upon both the African American lay religious leadership which supported Douglas` “Colored American Day Observance” and those few who opposed it, who were fearful of subsequent reprisals from the violent sectors of the White American racists, was the fact that the Observance itself very dramatically challenged the widely held White American view of African Americans as a shiftless, comedic people, who at the very most, they regarded as America`s permanent underclass. At the very least, the “Colored American Day Observance” was successful in setting forth a view of African Americans as “Human Beings,” rather than as the “Chattel” that they had been regarded as during the epoch of the pre-Civil War “Slavocracy.”
1895 Negro History Day resolution: Josephine Bruce, Sponsor
Douglas` 1893 “Colored American Day Observance” was so successful, that it captured the imagination of the Black American Community…. Subsequently in 1895, the debate about an annual celebration about the achievements of African Americans found its greatest ideals expressed in a resolution set forth by Mrs. Josephine Bruce before the National Association of Colored Women`s Clubs (NACWC). The organization is still extant in 37 states and was the predecessor of today`s national Council of Negro Women. Mrs. Bruce, wife of the powerful Reconstruction Era Black senator from the State of Mississippi (the Hon. Blanche K. Bruce) called for an annual “Negro History Day” celebration in the United States.
Ku Klux Klan activity was running high at this time. Shootings, beatings, lynchings and other brutal acts of violence against African Americans were very prevalent and for this reason, the resolution failed. The National Association of Colored Women`s Clubs were afraid to push this resolution, fearing that it would put them in danger.
1926 Negro History Week: Dr. Carter G. Woodson, Founder
In 1895, at the age of 20, Carter G. Woodson, a young black student, became so imbued with the Black community`s preoccupation with the idea of an annual celebration on the achievements of its people… that approximately twenty years later, at the age of 41, he founded the first scholarly organization committed to the study of Black people, i.e., “The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History” (ASNLH). In 1926, Woodson established a National Negro History Week. It is this important contribution to the Black History Month evolution that is underplayed. Without the Association for the Study of Negro life and History and the leadership of Carter G. Woodson, there would probably not be an institution of Black Studies, because Woodson was the acknowledged father of Black Studies as an academic discipline. His Negro History Week Observance existed from 1926 through 1971.
1960 African World Festival Proposal: Panafricanist beginning of the First USA Black History Month Observance in 1965
While the Negro History Week of Dr. Woodson carried on through 1971, it was in late 1959 and early 1960, and from an “economic development Panafricanist” philosophic orientation, that Dr. Robert Starling Pritchard organized the then incorporated Pan-American Association, for the initial purpose of implementing his proposal to the Senegalese Government for a “World Festival of Negro Arts.” In late 1959 and early 1960, that proposal was commissioned by the 17 Member Council of Ministers of the Federated West African States of Mali and Senegal. The proposal called for a contingent of Black creative and performing artists, scientists, educators, economists, philosophers, politicos, civil rights leaders, entrepreneurs and other professionals from the USA and from the New World Lands of the African Diaspora to participate in his proposed “Festival Mondial des Arts Negres” which was launched in Dakar, Senegal during the month of June 1966.
The first BHM Observance was supported by such prominent African American Artist-Intellectuals as poets Samuel Allen, Maya Angelou, Calvin Herton, Gloria Oden, Nikki Giovanni, Leroy Jones (aka the Immamu Baraka); play writers William Branch, Lofton Mitchell, Ossie Davis, et al: writers Robert Hayden, Ralph Ellison, Ismael Reed, James Baldwin, Historian Harold Cruse, the Latin American poets of “La Negritude” Nicholas Guillen (Cuba), Dr. Jean Price Mars and Jean Briere (Haiti), Aime Cesaire (Martinique); Jazz pianist composer-band leader Duke Ellington (USA); Symphonic Conductor-Composer, Coleridge Taylor Perkinson; Economist Sir Arthur Lewis; the Executive Director of the Paris-Dakar based Society Africaine de Culture (M. Alioune Diop); Painters Norman Lewis, Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden; African Dancer/Musician Babatunde Olatunge; American Choreographer/Dancers Katherine Dunham, Alvin Alley and the Donald McKee Dance Company; Soprano Afrika Hayes (daughter of Roland Hayes), Marian Anderson, Roland Hayes, Tod Duncan and Dorothy Maynor; The Haiti and Senegalese Governments, the Jamaica Progressive League (NYC) Jackson Martindale (President of Who`s Who), Martha Jackson Galleries (NYC, Montreal and Paris), The American Library Association, the National Chamber of Commerce, the American Management Association, Farleigh Dickinson University (New Jersey), the New School for Social Research (NYC) the Poetry Society of America (NYC), the National Academy of Sciences (NYC), the USIA`s Voice of America, the Hallmark Card Company, et. al.
On February 1st 1965, Pritchard launched AFNA (The American Festival of Negro Arts) in New York City, as the first “Black History Month Observance” in proclamation ceremonies presided over by New York City`s Democratic Mayor Robert Wagner and New Jersey`s Republican Governor, Richard Hughes.
Also on 1 February 1965, Pritchard proclaimed the first “Black History Month Observance as the progeny of a then 72 year evolutionary process in the development of an organized “Black Consciousness Movement” in the United States as a fitting tribute to the “Negro History Week Observance” of Dr. Carter G. Woodson.
On his 90th birthday, Jean Prince Mars (Haiti`s signatory to the Charter of the United Nations) passed the mantel of the “Philosophy of Le Negritude” to Dr. Robert Starling Pritchard, who he credited with expanding the Philosophy to include the use of the term “Le Negritude de L`Amerique.”
Dr. W.E.B. Dubois (the co-founder of the NAACP) presented the first “without credit” Black Studies course in an American institution of higher learning outside of the HBCU establishment. Dr. Robert Starling Pritchard is credited with offering the first black studies course “for credit” outside of the HBCU establishment. Both courses were given at the New School for Social Research (NYC).
He also regards his historic role as one of the Founders of Black History Month as “one which provides Americans of African descent with an occasion to annually assess both 'change` and 'progress` dynamics of race-relations that have taken place in all fields of endeavour, primarily in the USA, but also throughout the New World Lands of the African Diaspora.” Dr. Pritchard proudly acknowledges that in addition to the 33 year  administration of the USA`s Black History Month Observance by his foundation-sponsored African American History Month State and Regional Commissions, that the BHM public relations advocacy contributions of the Atlanta based great, great, granddaughter of Frederick Douglas, Mrs. Netti Douglas-Washington (also a descendent of Booker T. Washington); the NACWC, the NCNW and the ASALH have preserved the historical “Black Threads of Ariadnes” Black American organizational identification of the three major Black American figures who are historically identified with the 105 year evolution of the Black History Month Observance, with its forbearer-observances of Frederick Douglas` “Colored American Day” and Dr. Carter G. Woodson`s “Negro History Week.”
Moreover, Dr. Pritchard especially accords the ASALH with its contribution of “popularizing” the BHM Observance via its successful 1976 US bicentennial year “quasi-official-celebration” of Black History Month under the imprimatur of the US Congressional Black Caucus.
In that same year, Dr. Pritchard`s Foundation also celebrated the 11th year celebration of the BHM Observance at the Gala Symphonic Concert Presentation (co-sponsored by the Organization of African Unity), at the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations. The concert featured the Choral-Symphonic Ecclesiastical masterpieces of the Baroque and Pre-classical Black Composers of Brazil (which had been discovered by Dr. Francisco Kurt Lange, the German-Uruguayan musicologist and Co-Founder of the Panamerican-Panafrican Association). The concert was also launched on the occasion of the 13th anniversary of the Founding of the OAU and the Bicentennial Celebration of the USA as a dramatic and pragmatic expression of the Panafricanist Philosophy of “La Negritude” as that philosophy related to the cultures of Black Peoples in the New World Lands of the African Diaspora.
It is in noting that from the first Black American Community Celebration of “Juneteenth (now officially celebrated as a State holiday in Texas and Oklahoma), that this year`s official celebration of the Black History Month Observance in Liberia, may eventually catapult the annual celebration of Black History Month in the USA and Canada from its “unofficial status” to an “Official Status” (as yet another fitting tribute to Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black Studies as an Academic Discipline).
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